Thursday’s meeting was set to evaluate changes the Department of Children, Youth, and Families is making in response to recommendations from the Child Advocate following the January death of a 9-year-old former foster child. The committee focused on persistently high caseloads, a backlog of unlicensed kinship foster homes, and questions about staff accountability.

DCYF Director Trista Piccola began the hearing by listing policy changes the department has made since January, including mandating more thorough reviews of foster parents’ capacity to care for kids with special needs, limiting the placement of unrelated children in a foster home together, and establishing a team of administrators to review foster placement exemptions. Piccola also touted the department’s plan announced Wednesday to hire 23 additional frontline staff, in an effort to reduce caseloads. This raised questions from lawmakers, including Rep. Blake Filippi and Rep. Michael Chippendale who had asked both the director at an Oversight Committee hearing in June whether her agency needed additional staff.

“I’m glad we’re doing the 23,” Chippendale said. But he added, “I feel the 23 was done in haste prior to an announced rally by the very workers who are on the front lines dealing with these issues every day. And I think it was thrown up against the wall to try to stem some of the criticism or tough questions that would inevitably come from this hearing tonight. I will stop short of calling it a stunt.”

The state's Child Advocate, Jennifer Griffith, and multiple committee members said they’re not fully satisfied with the department’s progress. 

“Out of the 20 recommendations I supposed I’d give them honestly a D,” Committee Chairwoman Patricia Serpa said after the meeting. “To my way of thinking they’re not moving fast enough in correcting [the problems].”

Serpa added that she thinks the department’s next priority should be finding an interim director to replace Trista Piccola, who is set to leave the agency next month. She also indicated that the committee will continue using their authority to monitor the state’s child welfare system.During the course of the 6 ½ hour meeting, lawmakers heard testimony from DCYF staff, foster parents, a foster youth, and state officials that raised concerns beyond the meeting’s initial scope. Union representatives and staff from the Rhode Island Training School voiced concerns about workplace safety and the quality of education at the states’ juvenile detention facility.

In response, Representative Anastasia Williams commented, “There is certainly a dire need to delve in more about this training school. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going on that I’m just hearing by virtue of employees coming forward.”

Representative June Speakman also requested that a representative from the Family Court be brought in to testify on the court’s role in child protection.