The State of New Hampshire is not prepared to deal with the growing number of child abuse and neglect cases, according to a Wednesday preliminary report.
The interim report by the Center for the Support of Families (CSF) — an outside agency hired by the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate child abuse fatalities in the state — found that the Division of Children, Youth and Families is severely understaffed, sees constant turnover among social workers and allows investigations of abuse and neglect to remain open beyond the required 60-day window.
The early findings show the DCYF did not close most child assessments within the 60-day period, creating a large backlog of open cases at the department.
“It is a liability for the agency, suggesting that active work is being done on assessments, when in fact data show weeks and months go by with little or no activity,” the report states.
Only about 21 percent of assessments reviewed were completed within the 60 days, the report found.
CSF reviewed data going back to February 2006 and found that the amount of assessments completed on time remained consistent, between 15 and 30 percent. Even when the number of assessments began to dramatically increase in 2012 due to the opioid addiction crisis, the social workers were still able to complete that amount of assessments.
But between February 2006 and February 2012, about 100 to 200 assessments were completed each month. The numbers spiked at the end of 2012 and by 2013 the department was in the 800 range. There were months in 2015 and 2016 where DCYF completed as many as 1,000 cases.
About 81 percent of the social workers interviewed in the report identified workload as the leading cause of uncompleted and overdue assessments, the report found.
While national standards recommend that a social worker have no more than 12 active cases at any one time, DCYF workers carry a heavier workload than that.
“We heard from some social workers that they had caseloads as high as 70 open assessments,” the report states.
Of the 33 social workers surveyed, the average monthly caseload was about 54. DCYF social workers are getting an average of 15 reports of abuse or neglect each month, despite not finishing other assessments. As a result, there is a high turnover in staff, which is one of the department’s biggest challenges.
“With such a high number of new assignments each month, and a 60-day policy window to complete them, it’s not difficult to see how the backlog of incomplete assessments has accumulated,” the report states.
The report found 90 assessment workers are needed to keep up with the volume of incoming child abuse reports, far above the current number. The division has 85 assessment positions, but on average, roughly 28 were vacant each month between December 2015 and July 2016.
But the department would need 134 positions to keep up with casework demands and if the vacancy rate could be reduced from 33 percent a month to 25 percent, the department could get by with only 120 workers, the report found.
“Assessment staff are among the most critical in the State for ensuring the health and safety of New Hampshire’s most vulnerable children,” the report states. “And they cannot carry out that mission if their own needs for well-being are unmet.”
Commissioner of Health and Human Services Jeffrey Meyers announced that he would reallocate 22 new positions to DCYF.
The department has struggled in recent months to meet a plan to provide around-the-clock staffing at child protective services. No bidders have responded to a state request to staff a DCYF hotline 24/7.
DCYF is also struggling with the number of child abuse and neglect cases that are substance abuse related.
In fiscal year 2015, 44 percent of cases that filtered through DCYF listed substance abuse as a risk factor. The number of drug addicted babies is also on the rise. In 2013, there were 235 reports of infants exposed to substances, and in 2015 it rose to 430, the DCYF found.
CSF was hired by the state to investigate child protection practices at the DCYF after 3-year-old Brielle Gage of Nashua and 21-month-old Sadie Willott of Manchester died while their neglect and abuse cases were under DCYF review.
DHHS requested the preliminary report to help create its agency budget request, which is due this fall. The final report is expected to be released in November.