On a radiant day in July, Governor Gina Raimondo—for the second time this year—called for a complete overhaul of Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF). This statement comes as no surprise. Since 2014, the governor’s office has monitored the DCYF due to poor oversight within the agency. In early January of this year, the Governor’s Resource Team published an executive report of DCYF’s System of Care. Several government officials, as well as Rhode Island residents, cite the DCYF as a failure of city government. “Expenditures have exceeded budget financing in each of the past two years,” the report reads, “and are projected to exceed budget financing in Fiscal Year 2015 by an estimated $11.3 million, comprised of $10 million in general revenue and $1.3 million from federal (and restricted receipt) funds.” Asking for more money from the State in 2015, the DCYF became the subject of an audit by the Rhode Island Department of Administration. No one expected the problem to be as huge as it is.
The October 5 audit of the DCYF showed that the former director, Janice DeFrances, received several inappropriate payments from the Center for South East Asians (CSEA), an agency vendor to the DCYF. DeFrances also acted as a paid consultant to the CSEA, creating a conflict of interest in their work together. DeFrances, the audit reads, “circumvented the state of Rhode Island Purchasing Rules and regulations by entering into fiscal agency arrangements with CSEA, did not provide sufficient supporting documentation for reimbursements, and appeared to violate the Ethics code.” Bank statements include: a payment of $1,650 to Belizean Grove, a private women’s club located in New York City, and $684.41 as “reimbursement for several miscellaneous expenses, such as: restaurants, supplies, and an alcohol purchase.” In January, it was revealed that DeFrances would be resigning from her position as director. The DCYF failed to accurately track the flow of income within the department. “No one was looking at the bills from vendors and saying, ok, did we get the services we asked for? Does this match up with the contract? Most contracts [had] no performance measures, so they had no idea whether they spent the money wisely,” Kristin Gourlay of RI Public Radio reports.
As many residents can attest, problems of corruption in Rhode Island are not uncommon. Former mayor Buddy Cianci requires no introduction. Serving from 1975 to 1984, Cianci resigned on allegations of assault. Returning to office in 1991, he planned to run for a seventh term “before he was indicted on 27 charges ranging from bribery to extortion,” writes Reid Wilson of the Washington Post. Past government representatives have been accused of corruption at various levels. Former governor Edward DiPrete pled guilty to 18 corruption charges related to the acceptance of bribes from contractors. Former speaker of the house and chief justice of Rhode Island’s Supreme Court, Joseph A. Bevilaqua, resigned in 1986 due to impeachment testimony on his connection with the mob. While small-scale corruption may not seem like such a problem, the Department of Child Services is no bodega.
The DCYF operates on a large scale. The agency has had a budget of $225 million over the last three years, is responsible for more than 600 employees, and is accountable for many children. Its mission, as listed on its website, is to “partner with families and communities to raise safe, healthy children and youth in a caring environment.” The DCYF currently serves about 2,700 children in Rhode Island. This number consists partly of abandoned children and those from “unfit” households. “When the family is unable to care for a child/youth, it is our responsibility,” the DCYF says on its website, “in as timely a manner as possible, to ensure the child/youth is provided permanency in his/her life in a safe, stable, and nurturing home.” Another portion of the 2,700 includes kids with “extreme behavioral problems,” whose parents rely on the DCYF to provide medical aid. As of June 4, 87 kids have been placed in out-of-state facilities, which have cost the agency upwards of $10.7 million each year. Out-of-state facilities are “self contained campus settings that provide an intensive level of casework, therapy, and educational programs.” The department currently places 45 children in group homes, which many lawmakers take issue with. Group homes, as described in DCYF’s Service Provider Registry, “provide placement for a maximum of eight children” and “work to develop responsibility, positive relationships, and more adaptive behaviors.” The agency has been placing a higher percentage of foster children per group home than experts recommend. “Research shows that the chances for succeeding in school,” Gourlay goes, “staying out of the criminal justice system, living happy, healthy lives—all of that gets more precarious the longer kids live in group homes.”
The dynamics of the group home and out-of-state facilities have dastardly consequences for vulnerable foster children. Dr. Audrey Tyrka, a neuroscientist at Butler hospital, conducted a study on the effects of anxiety on developing brains. “Working with Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families,” Public Radio writes, “she recruited 240 kids between the ages of three and five, all of them living in poverty. About half had been involved with DCYF at some point because of maltreatment.” Tyrka found high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in all of the children. Long periods of high cortisol in the body have been proven to contribute to diabetes. Cortisol can also put children at risk for mental health problems, then difficult to address due to the longstanding shortage of insurance providers for mental health services. “Often times the insurance piece isn’t in place yet,” says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Lowenhaupt to RI PR, “So my understanding is that all kids in DCYF have coverage and that starts the day they are removed. But they don’t have their card, they don’t have their number, it hasn’t been activated right away.”
What about the material conditions of the homes children are placed in? In early October, Liberty Lane, a group home for adolescents, was forced to close due to an ongoing investigation of assault. The home operates under the purview of Child and Family of Rhode Island (CFRI)—a social service agency which ponies up huge sums to support DCYF clients. Child and Family is one of the largest service providers in Rhode Island. According to its website, “Child & Family is the lead agency for the Rhode Island Care Management Network which was selected by the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families to serve one of two statewide Family Care networks.” The allegation and subsequent investigation does not seem based on one incident, either. Martin Sinnott, president of Child and Family, tells RI PR that “there has been an uptick in police contact with residents at the home.”
In August this year, Children’s Rights, an advocacy nonprofit, updated their 2007 legal complaint against the DCYF. Among many issues, the nonprofit argues that the DCYF has not sufficiently protected children in group homes. Children’s Rights claims that problems at the DCYF have not been ameliorated, but rather have increased in size. “There have been a number of task forces and committees that have looked at these issues and acknowledged we’ve got a problem here that needs to be fixed, and yet, year after year, has gone by without those fixes,” lead attorney Sara Bartosz told Public Radio. “What the suit is about is getting a commitment that’s enforceable to finally get these fixes done for the kids. There’s a long history of promises made and promises broken. In our judgment, an enforceable court order is required to make sure promises are made and kept this time.”
The placement of children into foster homes does not happen without caseworkers. They work with and advise families on what should be done about their specific situation. The large caseloads that the department gives its workers can contribute to lapses, such as the one at Liberty Lane.
Caseworkers in Providence manage an average of 20 cases—far above the national, recommended average of 14. The additional cases no doubt contribute to case mismanagement. “The caseload is not manageable,” Katie Dalton, a caseworker for DCYF, tells Gourlay. “It’s crisis intervention and doing the best you can, but really, the quality casework we should be doing to effectively work with the families you can’t accommodate on a daily basis because it’s just too demanding and overwhelming.”
The turnover among caseworkers in Rhode Island is a surprising 25%. Beyond dealing with stressful issues, caseworkers usually do not have assistance from their larger departments in conducting business. Dalton has to use her own car, because the agency does not have enough vehicles for all of its employees. She also uses her own phone, because the agency does not provide them, possibly due to a lack of funding. On October 6, the audit from the Department of Administration found that the balance for the wellness, support, and caring for employees “increased from $10,000 to $17,431.06.” It is surprising that an increase of $7,000 could not support the caseworkers in any substantial way.
In the executive report from the governor’s office, two of the recommendations given to the DCYF focus on issues of technology and training. Many electronic capacities of the agency are outdated—computers and data resources are more than 17 years old. To get up to speed with contemporary technology, RI PR says that the agency would have to “update twice.” Technology would surely be a boon to most caseworkers. Moreover, it takes months to train social workers new to the DCYF. Given that the rate of employee replacement is already at an abnormally high level, it would help to get workers up to speed at a quicker rate.
A 2010 article in Newsweek wrote of Rhode Island: “If a legislator hires his son, cousin, or mistress for a state job that pays more than $100,000, people nod. Aw, they say, that’s just how business is done here.” Corruption and questionable practices form part of the state’s status quo. Transparency is weak, allowing public departments to evade scrutiny and mismanage funds with impunity. When such abuses are discovered, for many Rhode Islanders, it is already too late. DeFrances mishandled finances within the DCYF to further her own self-interest, completely disregarding the nature of her work. Furthermore, officials within the DCYF failed to provide accurate oversight of company contracts.
In January, Raimondo announced that she had appointed Jamia McDonald to the position of Chief Strategic Officer for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Before this position, McDonald was the head of Rhode Island’s Emergency Management Agency. Let us hope that under her guidance, corruption of government does not become any more commonplace.
SHANE POTTS B’17 is currently playing with a LEGO™ set in his Fox Point apartment.