Review of DCYF Finds Serious Gaps Harmed Children

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New Hampshire's Child Advocate Moira O'Neill.

By DAMIEN FISHER, InDepthNH.org

In a review of four critical Division for Children, Youth and Families’ cases, the New Hampshire Office of Child Advocate found gaps in care and communications that contributed to tragic outcomes.

The OCA released a report Monday outlining four cases in which children had been hurt or otherwise impacted while under some form of DCYF supervision. 

“In this report and the process that produced it, we seek to honor the children’s adverse experiences by learning and contributing to a system of prevention,” said Moira O’Neill, the State Child Advocate. “The personal tragedy of critical incidents and the experiences of staff working with those children can be lost in bureaucratic detachment, blame and shame of state actors, family dysfunction, and politics. It is up to the child welfare system to soothe family loss, demonstrate accountable standards of practice, deal with political fallout, and cope with the close proximity of tragedy.”

Last year, the OCA, partnering with representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services, DCYF and other agencies to form a System Learning Review team looked at four unrelated cases in which children were in harm’s way, or had some other serious intervention.

“All four cases involved children who had experienced the loss of family. Each relied upon the state as interim parent while working toward a return to family or a new family,” the report states. 

In all of the cases, the relationships between the care providers, the children, and the families were seen as weak points in the care and could be possible contributors to the outcomes.

“With the exception of gaps in service availability, all of the themes linked to a network of relationships affecting the circumstance and trajectory of children. Relationships were seen as essential to child and family wellbeing and agency functioning,” the report states.

In one case, a young boy called Toby, age 2, in the report suffered serious head trauma when he was abused by his father. In that case, the father, who had a hasty intervention with DCYF, was overwhelmed with parenting his other children, and not getting the support he needed, the report said. Because the case involved children under care of a bordering state’s child-care agency, there was a lack of full communication between New Hampshire’s DCYF and the other agency. This resulted in factors in the home, like the father losing a relative able to offer child-care support.

You can read the full report here. http://indepthnh.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/OCA-2020-SLR-SUMM-REP-04-05-21-FINAL.pdf

Another case involved a boy, Joseph, who had been traumatically abused as a young child.

Joseph suffered extensive early childhood trauma by parent and grandparents. “He and his family were subjects of 36 referrals to DCYF and 11 assessments by the time he was 9-years old. Those assessments
involved allegations of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, and neglect while in the care of his mother. His father was never in his life and reportedly often incarcerated.”

After being removed from the abusive home he was placed with a foster family. Joseph started acting out and the foster family asked for help. Joseph was taken to another institution where he was kept for two years, despite the foster family wanting to have him back, according to the report.

Joseph was next placed in the care of relatives who wanted to care for him. These relatives asked for in-home care and other support to help them deal with Joseph, but DCYF did not provide that care and soon after going to live with the relative Joseph was hospitalized.

Joseph did well enough in the institution that the relatives wanted him back. Again, they requested support that they did not get, and when overwhelmed by his aggressive acting they asked for one day of respite care, according to the report. Instead, DCYF removed Joseph from the home, according to the report. 

“DCYF informed Joseph’s relatives that Joseph would not be returning to their home. It was several days before Joseph learned that he would not be returning,” the report states.

He was still in the institution several months later during the case review.

In the third case, after years of abuse and neglect, including sexual abuse, Anthony experienced a chronically disrupted childhood. From age five he spent nine years with caregivers other than his mother. His father was absent from early on. There were seven abuse/neglect referrals on
his behalf from the age of seven. Allegations included sexualized behavior, sexual assault, emotional mistreatment, medical neglect, and exposure to substance use. All were unfounded with the exception of
a neglect case, according to the report.

Anthony was able to move in with his mother and her other children. He was soon in trouble for acting out, including meeting strangers on the Internet for sex acts, according to the report. He was institutionalized and doing well, until vaping materials were found in his room. 

Staff at the institution put him in a “quiet room” as punishment. When Anthony, angry at the punishment, confronted and allegedly tried to assault a staff member, he was placed in restraints and put in a prone position for 80 minutes. This lengthy and painful restraint was well-outside the normal policies and guidelines for the staff, according to the report.

Police were called and Anthony was later charged with assault.

The review team states in the report that children like Anthony, with a significant history of traumatic abuse from an early age, should be placed in facilities that specialize in care of children dealing with traumatic stress.

The final case involves another boy, Jordan, who also suffered abuse early on in life. Jordan spent much of his life in and out of institutions and hospitals after being abused by his mother and her boyfriend, according to the report. In his teens, he moved back in with his mother, though he continued to exhibit problem behavior related to a range of conditions, including PTSD. 

Jordan spent time in the New Hampshire State Hospital.

Jordan came to the attention of the OCA because of chronic and
repetitive incidents. During six years of DCYF custody, he experienced institutional placements, incarceration, and multiple hospitalizations for serious psychiatric illness including repeated suicide attempts.

In 2019, 17-year-old Jordan was at an institution out of state when his delinquency case closed by a law limiting children’s time in state custody. He returned home with no services in place, later became dysregulated, was hospitalized and placed in an institution where he attempted suicide and was hospitalized again, the report states.

He was kicked out of a rehab center for assaultive behavior and overdosed on medication that was supposed to see him through a week at the treatment center. Jordan was last known to have left a Boston hospital and is believed to be homeless.

In all of the cases, the connections between DCYF, the families, and the children, were lacking, according to the report.

“The key finding was that child and family wellbeing are dependent upon a network of essential relationships. In alignment with the science of child development, the (review teams) found that relationships between children and consistent, caring adults are crucial,” the report states. “Those adults, in turn, need positive relationships with agencies to feel supported and build capacity to best care for the children.”

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