Guest Column

Taking care of our children

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 6:15pm

If government cannot care for the most vulnerable children, it has little business doing much else. That’s why we were genuinely relieved to learn of the sudden addition of 23 child welfare staff to Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) last week. It was a long overdue step to help protect children — a move we fought for with amendments to the Fiscal Year 2020 budget.

We believe these hires are critical, given the sickening June report by Child Advocate Jennifer Griffith and the Child Fatality Review Panel. The need for additional staff is made clear by the January death of a special needs child under DCYF care — and the Child Advocate’s stern warning that DCYF’s dysfunctional management, policies, working conditions and staffing cuts to caseworkers and investigators, continues to put children at risk.

Notably, the Child Advocate testified at our June House Oversight Committee hearing that DCYF must immediately hire additional social workers and investigators to realistically and effectively handle the caseload, meet national child welfare standards and commence investigations of over 300 foster homes where children have been placed and where there has been no oversight by DCYF.

DCYF Director Trista Piccola, seated next to the Child Advocate, would not support her recommendation to hire more front-line staff.

When the proposed House budget was released, Republicans noted it failed to address the front-line staffing shortages at DCYF. House Republicans sought to compel these necessary hires through budget amendments. In doing so, we stood beside DCYF front-line workers, who have been in constant crisis mode, and have demanded reasonable staffing increases for years.

Unfortunately, Democrats voted to subsidize the motion picture industry with $20 million and the Fane tower in Providence with $25 million — and then shockingly defeated our budget amendment to alleviate some of the DCYF front-line staffing deficiencies. Republicans sought to use $2.9 million of the $20 million appropriated for the motion picture subsidy (up from $15 million last year).

The Democratic argument that we must wait for an 18-month accreditation process to study and make recommendations before we act was absurd. The “study” of current conditions, with recommended corrective action, had already been completed by the Child Advocate.

Unfortunately, our budget amendment to beef up DCYF front-line workers was defeated by Rhode Island Democratic House members by a vote of 58-17. We thank the eight Democrats who stood with our unanimous Republican caucus.

You can imagine our surprise now — only eight weeks after Director Piccola saw no need for more front-line staff — that DCYF announced the hiring of 23 additional front-line workers, only two less than our defeated budget amendment had proposed. Unfortunately, since the positions are not in the budget, Piccola testified last week that she has no idea where DCYF will get the money to pay for them.

This shoot-from-the-hip governance is unacceptable, and, as it relates to the care of our most vulnerable children, it is preposterous. To make matters worse, even if DCYF finds the money to pay for these 23 unfunded positions, it will not be enough. The Child Advocate recently determined that an additional 30 front-line workers are needed to reduce the current unmanageable 19 to 21 cases per front-line worker down to the national average of 14. Achieving this mark must be a priority for DCYF and Rhode Island policy makers.

Over the course of the last two months, many have commented that it is not every day you see Republicans and public-sector unions standing shoulder-to-shoulder on an issue. We do not think it odd, however, as Republicans believe that core government functions — such as the care of our most vulnerable children — must be properly funded and efficiently managed. Working together, and with the public’s continued attention and support, we can achieve this goal within DCYF.

Rep. Blake Filippi represents House District 36, which includes Block Island, and Rep. Michael W. Chippendale represents House District 40, which includes Coventry, Foster, and Glocester.