Children In Crisis: Investigating DCYF, One Story At A Time

Aug 12, 2015

Days after taking office, Gov. Gina Raimondo made a change in leadership at the Department of Children, Youth, and Families. That was after a series of reports, including one from a Senate task force, found serious problems at the agency. A recent audit uncovered even deeper financial troubles than anyone realized.  Our series “Children in Crisis,”about child welfare in the Ocean State, began today. RIPR's Kristin Gourlay joins news director Elisabeth Harrison with this preview.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation was asked to assess DCYF's operations in May 2014. Several critical reports have since followed, echoing AECF's findings.
Credit Annie E. Casey Foundation

  Here's a transcript of the conversation.

ELIS: Kristin, what are the most glaring problems at this agency?

KRIS: Rhode Island is ranked dead last or nearly last in the nation on a bunch of child welfare metrics. And advocates say children and families are suffering because of some of these deficiencies.

One of the biggest problems is the number of kids Rhode Island places in group homes. We have a higher percentage of kids in so-called “congregate care” than almost any other state. Most child welfare experts will tell you kids tend to do worse if they spend too long in a group home. DCYF staff agree it’s a problem.  But they say there’s often little choice because there aren’t enough foster families to take kids in.

ELIS: So too many children in group homes and not enough foster families. That’s one problem. But this agency has also come under scrutiny for a host of other problems, including cost overruns and most recently an audit found evidence of financial mismanagement  

KRIS: First let me say that child welfare agencies across the country are struggling to various degrees. This is complicated, difficult work dealing with child abuse and neglect. But in Rhode Island, some of the issues are worse than elsewhere. For example: DCYF social workers - these are the people who work one on one with families referred to DCYF – have really high caseloads The recommended load is about 14. But for one of the stories in my series this week, I rode along with a caseworker who manages nearly 20, and sometimes more. She says it’s almost impossible to spend the time that’s needed with families in the system, because she only has time to put out fires.

Another glaring issue is money. DCYF has run over-budget for years. Last year they went $16 million dollars into the red. But an audit has just uncovered much worse: auditors found no financial controls in place. At first, they couldn’t even find the contracts DCYF made with all of the outside agencies they use to work with kids and families. When they managed to track them down, they found several duplicates, and lots of vague contracts with no performance measures. Overall, there’s an absence of some of the most basic accounting procedures.                               

ELIS: Kristin Gourlay, the stories in your series touch on some of these issues, but you’ve gone beyond that to explore how kids in foster care fare in the health care system, what it’s like for foster families, and more. What surprised you most while working on this series?    

KRIS: That’s right. I wanted to get beyond the agency and learn more about how this system affects people personally. I spoke to a young woman who basically grew up in group homes and has struggled with depression and anxiety. I spent the day with a social worker, as we mentioned, who says her caseload is so overwhelming she can barely do much more than crisis management.

What surprised me was the willingness of people who’ve been involved in the system to share their stories. I don’t use a lot of names in this series to protect their privacy. But many were really open with me about their experiences, some of which have been painful. I also heard a lot of inspiring stories. So many Rhode Islanders work in the field of child welfare or volunteer their time – often without a lot of support and for little money.

ELIS: Stories from Kristin’s series “Children in Crisis” can be heard throughout the next several days on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. And those stories, plus some online exclusives will be on our web site, ripr.org. Thanks, Kristin.

KRIS: You’re welcome.