R.I. Department of Youth looks to reform services

Review of government agency reveals financial blunders, governor calls for major overhaul

Contributing Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Department of Children, Youth and Families is undergoing a major overhaul after a recent Rhode Island Office of Administration audit revealed the agency to be embattled with financial and accountability issues.

The Department of Children, Youth and Families is undergoing a major overhaul after a recent Rhode Island Office of Administration audit revealed the agency to be embattled with financial and accountability issues.

When Gov. Gina Raimondo took office, she immediately identified that DCYF was in need of reform and ordered an overhaul. Raimondo assigned DCYF with new leadership to carry out a “turnaround plan” and ordered a “top to bottom financial review” of DCYF to be conducted, said Mike Raia, communications director for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees DCYF.

The audit, which was released in July, identified significant challenges such as redundant services, lack of contract management and concerns with financial and purchasing processes, which revealed parts of the agency to be in “dysfunction,” Raia said.

The restructuring will also impact the agency’s relationship with its two key networks, Ocean State Network for Children and Families and Rhode Island Care Management Network, which were contracted three years ago to reduce costs.

In January, former Director Janice DeFrances resigned, and Raimondo assigned Elizabeth Roberts, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and Jamia MacDonald, chief strategy officer at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, to lead the overhaul of DCYF. At the time Raimondo took office, the agency was almost $16 million over budget and had deficits five out of the last six years due to lack of financial management and administrative blunders, according to the July audit. The audit revealed issues with contracts that were lost or unauthorized, erroneous payments, double checks and other mismanagement problems, Raia said.

“It was a department that was operating in crisis mode,” and consequently “the attention was not paid to contract management,” Raia said.

The State Police Department began an investigation into DCYF finances per the request of DCYF, the Providence Journal reported. Raia and Steven O’Donnell, superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police, said they could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

The two networks that work with DCYF are both faced with uncertainty as they wait for a concrete long-term plan from DCYF. Their contracts were extended for six months in July on a limited scope, Raia said.

Rhode Island’s child welfare system is performing poorly compared to other states, said Marty Sinnott, chief executive officer of Child and Family — the lead agency for the Rhode Island Care Management Network.

DCYF has been under-resourced for over a decade and is in need of support from the government, said Margaret Holland McDuff, chief executive officer of Family Service of Rhode Island, the main agency for Ocean State Network for Children and Families.

In 2012, the two private nonprofit networks were contracted for three years in order to streamline services and reduce costs for DCYF. The networks manage the placement of children with social workers as well as placement with a family or in a congregate care facility, McDuff said. The organizations also provide 24-hour on-call services and rapid assessments of the needs of children new to DCYF.

MacDonald recently announced that due to years of spending shortages, the DCYF will most likely bring services back into the agency, the Journal reported.

The conversation about the networks has been “misdirected” because the contracts were “established at the same time that the state reduced spending in these areas of child welfare by over $40 million,” and they did not address the possibility of caseload increases, Sinnot said.

The caseloads were significantly underestimated, MacDonald said. DCYF initially estimated 1,000 children per network, but now the networks serve 1,500 each. The contracts also didn’t factor in other components that contribute to the number of children in the services, such as increases in unemployment, drug abuse and childhood poverty — all of which have occurred in Rhode Island recently and contributed to the deficit spending.

Additionally, the cost of placing children out-of-state is double that of placing children within the state, Sinnott said. This also contributes to deficit spending for which the networks are held accountable, while the decision to place a child out-of-state is made by family courts and DCYF.

“There are no bad guys here, but I think it’s simplistic to conclude that the networks have not been responsibly managed or cost-effective,” Sinnott said.

Despite these challenges, Sinnott argues “the networks deserve a little bit of credit for keeping a lid on things.” He said he hopes that the reform will result in a multi-year plan with a clear destination.

“Everybody is hung up on the dollars, but this is about kids in situations that they should not be in,” MacDonald said.

The children’s advocacy group Children’s Rights updated their legal complaint against DCYF in August. The group filed a federal class action lawsuit in 2007 “seeking to correct serious deficiencies in Rhode Island’s child welfare system,” said Adriana Luciano, staff attorney at Children’s Rights. The two major areas the group aims to change are “the state consistently and seriously overloads all of its critical child welfare workers” and that there are not enough child foster homes, Luciano said. DCYF is currently “warehousing” children in congregate care facilities instead of placing them with foster families, she added.

When asked why this lawsuit has not moved forward since 2007, Luciano said, “Fighting this process takes time. The state has challenged our right to bring this lawsuit, our right to get systemic information and even our right to meet with child clients.”

Luciano states that Children’s Rights hopes that the DCYF reform will produce a concrete plan “with teeth” and accountability built in to “hold the state to that promise so the children are not forgotten.”

  • ’13

    As an alum now at Children’s Rights, I appreciate you guys covering this story. (May want to fix the headline though…)

    • ’13

      yay, you fixed it 🙂 thanks.