PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s child advocate sounded the alarm Tuesday, telling a state Senate committee that children in state care are not getting the services they need and are often being shipped out of state.
Jennifer Griffith noted that she and others had come before the Senate oversight committee two months ago, warning about a mounting crisis within the state Department of Children, Youth and Families.
“When I tell you that the situation has become much more dire and frankly dangerous in the last 60 days, I am telling you the truth,” Griffith said. “I am telling you that we are at an extreme level of desperation.”
She said she and her predecessors, Family Court officials, and other child welfare officials agree on one point: “It has never been this bad.”
Griffith said the state lacks the necessary number of psychiatric treatment beds, particularly for girls, so it now has 70 children in out-of-state placements, which can cost about $9 million per year.
She said the state lacks supportive housing, particularly for those in the “voluntary extension of care” category. “These are young people, between 18 and 21, who did not return to their families,” she explained. “Parents’ rights were terminated. There was no one in their life who adopted them or sought to foster them, and they are on their own.”
She said the state lacks the needed amount of supportive housing for teen parents, pregnant parents, and young families who have gone through Family Court but cannot find housing in Rhode Island.
And, she said, “Last but certainly not least, the actual dire straits we are in for mental health and behavioral health services for young adults and children.”
Griffith said different administrations have responded by noting the impact of the pandemic. While that has exacerbated the situation, she said: “I am not interested in hearing or trying to be convinced that all these problems were caused by the pandemic. They were there all along.”
Amid the crisis, each day is much like the one before, Griffith said. “It’s Groundhog Day every single day when my phone starts ringing in the morning about judges complaining, social workers complaining, families complaining, senators and [representatives] complaining.”
She emphasized that she is not complaining and is happy to field those calls. But she said the frustration is palpable when she and other attorneys go to Family Court each day. “It is a constant situation of judges at a loss,” she said. “We have no places to put these children.”
In case after case, referrals are denied because facilities have inadequate staffing levels and capacity, she said.
“This is not a criticism of the programs we use in Rhode Island,” Griffith said. “I support the programs we have. But the e-mails I receive and the calls I get every single day from executive directors along the lines of: ‘I will be forced to close if I don’t get more help. We cannot take the kids that we have right now. We cannot treat them properly.’ They are in dire need of help.”
Massachusetts programs have higher wages and more government support, but they can only hold so many spots for children coming from Rhode Island, she said.
In October, Governor Daniel J. McKee proposed spending 10 percent of Rhode Island’s $1.13 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds by investing in small businesses, housing, and child care. The proposal includes $12.5 million in “workforce stabilization payments to the staff of the service provider organizations contracted by the DCYF.”
Griffith said, “I appreciate the $12.5 million, which was given to amplify those who make under $75,000.” But, she said, “That is a temporary Band-Aid to a situation that’s going to last way past next fiscal year. It’s welcome, the $12.5 million, but it’s not going to help us to where we need to be.”
Griffith said Bradley Hospital, a children’s psychiatric facility in East Providence, is filled. “It is not a forever placement. You are supposed to step down. We have nowhere to go.”
She said she has toured every abandoned building she can find in the state to try to find a place to send these children. “But I need the authority and the ability to say ‘Let’s get it started.’” And even if a building was available, she said she’s not sure who would work there.
Griffith told the senators she would work with any of them on a solution. “I’m imploring you, I’m begging you at this point,” she said. “We are at a crisis point, and I’m not sure what activity it will take or what disastrous news article we will have to read before we take further action.”
When people hear about “child welfare,” they might be tempted to think “it’s not my people, it’s not my family,” Griffith said. “I assure you that it is. It’s all across Rhode Island. It’s all of your constituents.”
Senator Stephen R. Archambault, a Smithfield Democrat, said he’d be glad to introduce legislation to create a task force to find or create a facility to serve these children.
Griffith said that would help, and she’d like to take part. “We just keep talking about this problem, and we are not actually as a group doing what we can,” she said. “I can’t believe there is not a building or buildings out there right now that sits empty that we cannot use.”
Senator Louis P. DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Rules, Government Ethics and Oversight, said Rhode Island needs to stop sending children out of state and paying higher rates there. He said he hopes McKee will address the issue in his fiscal year 2023 budget proposal.
“This is exactly the kind of one-time investments that are needed,” DiPalma said. “We just got to go do it. There are certain things that need to get done and be done tomorrow.”