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Union, Republicans agree on this: more child welfare workers needed in Rhode Island

The Rhode Island State House seen from Kennedy Plaza in Providence, RI. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff)/File) Lane Turner/Globe Staff

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PROVIDENCE -- Union leaders and Republican lawmakers find themselves in unusual agreement, calling for the state to hire more front-line child-welfare workers after a damning report about the death of an adopted 9-year-old who was left in a bathtub for up to eight hours.

Union members in the state Department of Children, Youth and Families plan to hold a “caseload/workload crisis rally” on the State House steps at 4 p.m. Thursday — one hour before the House Oversight Committee meets to see what action DCYF has taken on the report’s recommendations.


In a 57-page report issued in June, Child Advocate Jennifer Griffith and the Child Fatality Review Panel detailed a series of failures leading up to the January death of Zah-Nae Rothgeb, who had cerebral palsy and was one of eight special-needs children that Warwick’s Michele Rothgeb was allowed to keep in her care.

“DCYF with its social workers, supervisors and administrators, created this situation. Over the course of 13 years, they had multiple opportunities to intervene,” the report said. “We maintain that the actions, or inactions of DCYF staff contributed to the death of this child.”

The report concludes with 21 recommendations, including improved training, strict protocols for handling hotline calls about foster homes, and in-depth assessments of prospective foster parents.

At Thursday’s rally, union members plan to amplify the report’s final recommendation: “The department should hire additional front-line staff in all divisions.”

“Children and families are at risk because we have inadequate staff to do the job,” Service Employees International Union Local 580 President Kathy McElroy told the Globe. “We need at least 20 more caseworkers in the family service unit and another 10 child protective investigators, and we have a (foster home) licensing system that is broken.”


“It’s important for this committee to listen to the voices of the people who day to day are doing this critical work,” Rhode Island AFL-CIO President George Nee said. “We are not going to get to a real solution until all of these voices are heard and paid attention to.”

McElroy said she has written “thank you” letters to House Republicans and those Democrats who tried unsuccessfully to amend the state budget to provide more money to hire front-line child-welfare workers.

“That almost never happens,” McElroy said of Republican/union agreement. “I thought it was interesting. Really, this isn’t about Democrats and Republicans, union or not union — it’s about resourcing the department appropriately, and we have not done that. We all as a society have an obligation to make sure that gets done.”

House Republicans proposed an amendment to the state budget to spend $2.9 million to add 19 more social caseworkers and six more child-protection investigators. They proposed taking the money from the state’s film tax credit program. But Democratic leaders objected, saying DCYF had 40 unfilled positions and calling for an analysis of how the agency is functioning. The GOP amendment failed by a vote of 17 to 58.

In an interview last week, House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Block Island Republican, said hiring front-line child-welfare workers should be a higher priority than the “corporate welfare” of the film tax credit program.


“Republicans are not anarchists,” Filippi said. “We believe government has a role, and one of the primary roles is to safeguard our vulnerable children. If we can’t do that, we have little business doing much else.”

He said the state child advocate has called for adding front-line case workers, and while an analysis of the agency may be needed, the state can’t wait years to act.

“My friends on the other side become fiscal conservatives when it suits their political ends,” Filippi said. “The building is burning. We might want to construct a new building. But this is the structure we have now, and this is the bare minimum needed.”

House Oversight Committee Chair Patricia A. Serpa, a West Warwick Democrat, said DCYF leaders have in the past told legislators that they have sufficient funding, but she wonders if the money is being spent where it’s needed.

“I’m reluctant to keep throwing money at a failing agency,” Serpa said. “The spending is out of control, and we just keep throwing money at it, and that is not the answer.”

Serpa said she would not mind having Griffith, the state child advocate, or Joseph Cardin, a former state Training School superintendent, run DCYF for six months or a year — until a permanent director is hired.

“I bet they would make heads roll or make changes that would make it a better place and a safer place,” she said. “It’s health and safety. We take kids from their biological parents and say ‘Your child is not safe,’ and what do we do? We bury them. This is wrong.”


Serpa said the state has set aside $500,000 to pursue national accreditation for DCYF, and if the accreditation process identifies the need for additional funding, it would likely receive legislative support. Accreditation would take about two years, and in the meantime the department can fill vacancies, she said.

“So let’s just wait and get the accreditation done instead of throwing millions at this and not fixing anything,” she said. “If more money is needed, then we are going to put the money there.”

Meanwhile, Governor Gina M. Raimondo’s administration is considering hiring more front-line workers in addition to conducting a top-to-bottom review of DCYF that would serve as a blueprint for the next director. Last month, DCYF Director Trista Piccola announced that she will be stepping down and is planning to move to Arizona.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FitzProv.