If government cannot care for the most vulnerable children amongst us, it has little business doing much else.
That’s why we are genuinely relieved to learn of the sudden addition of 23 child welfare staff to Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). It is a long overdue step in the right direction to help protect our most vulnerable children – a move we fought for with amendments to the FY20 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 continue 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 Piccola, seated next to our Child Advocate, would not support the Child Advocate’s recommendation to hire more frontline staff.
Shortly after this report and testimony, the proposed FY20 budget was revealed to the entire House. Republicans noted that there was absolutely nothing in the budget to address the frontline staffing shortages at DCYF. House Republicans sought to compel these necessary hires through budget amendments. We were happy to work with and stand beside DCYF frontline workers, who have been in constant crisis mode, to support the reasonable staffing changes they have demanded for years.
During the FY20 budget debate, our Democratic colleagues 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 frontline staffing deficiencies. Our budget amendment 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 on budget night, that “we must wait for an over 18-month accreditation process to study and make recommendations before we act,” is absurd.
In our minds, the “study” of current conditions at DCYF containing a thoughtful course of corrective action had already been completed by the Child Advocate: DCYF is in crisis and must immediately hire additional frontline staff – not in 18 months at the conclusion of the accreditation process.
Republicans believe that hiring these needed frontline workers must take priority over multi-million-dollar corporate welfare subsidies, which are unconscionable while children are being taken from abusive situations and placed in uncertified foster homes or with foster parents whose conduct has raised enormous red flags – largely because DCYF frontline workers are drastically understaffed.
Unfortunately, our budget amendment to beef up DCYF frontline workers was defeated by Rhode Island Democratic House members on 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 DCYF Director Piccola would not support the Child Advocate’s recommendation to hire more frontline staff, and the subsequent defeat of our budget amendment seeking to add these additional staff – that DCYF announced the hiring of 23 additional frontline workers; only two less than our defeated budget amendment had proposed. The problem is that these proposed new positions are not funded because our FY20 budget amendment was defeated, and Director Piccola testified that she has no idea where DCYF will get the money to pay these desperately needed new workers.
This unprepared, 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 frontline workers are needed to reduce the current and unmanageable 19-21 cases per frontline worker down to the national average of 14. Achieving this mark must be a priority for DCYF and Rhode Island policymakers.
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 the same side of 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.
State Rep. Blake A. Filippi is the House Republican Leader. State Rep. Michael W. Chippendale is the House Republican Whip.