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House Oversight holding hearings into R.I. Department of Children, Youth, and Families

The scrutiny began years ago, after the deaths of children under state care and scathing reports of dysfunction and critical staffing cuts to caseworkers

Womazetta Jones, secretary of the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services, speaks at a news conference on June 22, 2020, in Providence.David Goldman/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — The House Oversight Committee is holding a hearing Thursday into ongoing issues at the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families, including the hiring of a new director, how social workers are juggling heavy caseloads, and the impact of school closures on children suffering abuse.

This oversight of the beleaguered state agency began several years ago, after tragic deaths of children under state care and scathing reports by the state child advocate, Jennifer Griffith, of dysfunction and critical staffing cuts to caseworkers.

Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones, who is expected to testify at the hearing, has been tasked with finding someone to lead DCYF since former director Trista Piccola left in 2019. Deputy Director Kevin Aucoin, who is also expected to testify at the hearing, has been the acting director since then.

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State Representative Patricia Serpa, the West Warwick Democrat who chairs the 22-member oversight committee, said Wednesday that she plans to inquire about hiring a new director. She said that Jones told the committee last year that there were only two viable candidates for the job, and both declined when they learned what it would pay.

Serpa said she’s speaking to Aucoin about whether the number of calls coming into the child abuse hotline were lower during the pandemic because teachers and school nurses weren’t seeing children. She said she wants to know whether the number of calls for investigations are returning to pre-pandemic levels now that children are going back to school.

She said the committee wants to know whether DCYF has been able to hire and retain more social workers to relieve the heavy caseloads.

The committee is also asking about the status of a settlement agreement in 2018 of a federal lawsuit filed against DCYF in 2007 on behalf of abused and neglected children in state care. The committee is also inquiring about the process for DCYF to obtain human and social services accreditation from the Council of Accreditation.

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The hearing starts at 4 p.m. and will be televised on Capitol Television and live streamed at http://rilegislature.gov/CapTV/Pages/default.aspx.


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.