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RI HEALTH

Rhode Island legislators, social workers union call for audit of DCYF

The Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families will get an $11 million boost in the proposed budget, but lawmakers and union members ask for accountability and oversight

PROVIDENCE — While the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families will get an $11 million boost in the proposed budget going before the House on Thursday, several members of the House Oversight Committee and the union representing social workers said the agency also needs to be audited.

A bipartisan group of legislators and union members called a news conference Tuesday afternoon in the lobby of DCYF to announce their support for the funding — as long as there is accountability.

“There’s no way for us to assure [how the money is spent], which is why a watchful eye on the part of the legislature and an independent audit ... are imperative,” said Representative Michael Chippendale, a Republican representing Coventry, Foster, and Glocester. “Otherwise, we’re throwing good money after bad.”

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At a House Oversight Committee hearing on DCYF last month, Chippendale said that he was willing to raise an amendment to add more money to DCYF’s budget to alleviate the problems for over-worked, underpaid social workers and an unfilled director’s position that paid too little to attract qualified candidates.

He didn’t need to bring up an amendment after all. Last Thursday, the House Finance Committee added another $10 million above the governor’s recommendation for DCYF. That includes authorization for 91 more employees; the governor had proposed 16 more. It also allows the authority to pay the next director up to $200,000, with a commitment to a three-year contract, in hopes of attracting qualified candidates.

“We’re finally going to fully fund DCYF the way we should. We’re not talking about a Democratic thing or Republican thing — we’re talking about a good thing,” said representative Julie Casimiro, a Democrat for North Kingstown and Exeter and first vice chair of the House Oversight Committee. “After years of hearing horror stories in our oversight hearings, we finally provided DCYF with the tools they need to clean up this mess we see in Rhode Island’s child welfare system.”

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Providence Representative Anastasia Williams was less celebratory than her colleagues, saying she’d seen for decades how this agency has failed the most vulnerable children in the state.

“Plenty of watchful eyes have been looking at this department and the complaints have been falling on deaf ears,” she said.

DCYF has been under scrutiny since 2016, after the deaths of children in state care, and social workers and the state child advocate, Jennifer Griffith, have testified about dysfunction and turmoil.

Some at the press conference spoke about political patronage and nepotism at the agency, but did not give specific examples.

“Through the process of oversight, courageous members of the DCYF staff opened themselves up to us, came to our offices,” Chippendale said. “And most of them ended up crying, because that’s the conditions under which they are forced to work. ... That’s to justify these mid-level and upper level positions that were created out of thin air by previous administration to simply give people jobs.”

Matthew Gunnip, president of Service Employees International Union Local 580, called it a “bold budget” that will fully fund staffing. He said he was grateful for the legislators’ support of the social workers who were directly caring for the children and agreed that the agency’s practices should also undergo a thorough review.

“It isn’t just about funding more frontline workers who are needed immediately,” Gunnip said. “It’s also that a top-down review of agency that will root out the past practices that have put political patronage ahead of the welfare of our state’s most vulnerable children and families. We are hopeful today that the days of the political hookups that resulted in unnecessary positions at DCYF, underqualified staff that are overpaid, and wasteful practices are now going to be over.”

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