PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families is asking lawmakers for $22 million to cover a budget hole, as the agency looks to reinvent itself nearly one year after a 9-year-old girl died under state supervision in Warwick.
The state’s child welfare agency on Wednesday unveiled the supplemental budget request for fiscal 2019-20, which requires lawmaker approval, along with a host of proposed changes its leaders hope will better protect children in state custody.
The sweeping changes focus largely on foster care, in the wake of a scandal over 9-year-old Zha-Nae Rothgeb, an adopted Warwick girl under state supervision, who was found dead in the bathtub of a Warwick home.
The high-profile death resulted in the R.I. Office of the Child Advocate issuing a report lambasting DCYF and its procedures, saying the “actions, or inactions of DCYF staff contributed to the death of this child.” Officials said the report helped shape some of the newly proposed changes.
“The findings of that office are part of the narrative guiding us to where we need to be,” said Womazetta Jones, secretary of the R.I. Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees DCYF.
The proposed changes include hiring 14 new full-time employees to help recruit, train and retain more foster homes for displaced children. DCYF also wants to hire four additional child protective investigators to improve the safety and wellbeing of children entering foster care.
To ensure displaced children reach a permanent home or reunite with their parents more quickly, DCYF has also proposed hiring six attorneys and two paralegals to move cases along more efficiently in Family Court.
Other proposed changes include a plan to leverage more federal funds and to renegotiate contracts with private agencies, which could save the state some money in the process, along with a call for updated IT systems to better manage caseloads.
“These foster care changes are based on what we know are best practices for our children,” Jones told WPRI 12. “This is not a budget savings exercise.”
But the proposed changes overall will require additional money in both the current and future budgets. DCYF is asking the General Assembly for $22 million in supplemental funding to cover a projected deficit in the current fiscal year, according to budget documents submitted Wednesday.
The agency is also seeking $189 million in general revenue for fiscal 2020-21, representing a slight increase from the $187 million DCYF is now seeking for the current fiscal year when the supplemental funding is included.
The requests, however, will need the support of lawmakers, who have expressed frustration with repeated overspending at DCYF. The House Finance Subcommittee on Human Services has called on DCYF officials to answer questions about it on Tuesday.
“It is premature to comment in any detail because the DCYF budget was just submitted today, which is over two months late,” Larry Berman, a spokesperson for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, wrote in an email. “As was discussed at the House Finance Committee meeting last week, there has been very little information available to properly analyze the current situation, except for a first-quarter report showing broad outlines of a major problem.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio in a statement said the Senate would look for recommendations made by the governor in her fiscal 2020-21 budget proposal, which is likely to come out in the beginning of next year.
“The Senate Finance Committee will be taking a close look at the recommendation the governor includes in her budget submission, but generally speaking the Senate supports full funding for children in state care,” Ruggerio said. “We additionally support longer-term investments in capacity building to allow for placement in the most cost effective and appropriate settings.”
The $22 million in extra money for the current fiscal year is slated to offset unachieved cost savings the agency blames on high caseloads and staff turnover that have happened despite the recent hiring of 23 new full-time employees.
SEIU Local 580 President Kathy McElroy, whose union represents a large part of the DCYF workforce, said vacancies, training and the need to backfill some positions, along with an influx of new cases has kept caseloads stubbornly high.
But McElroy said she’s optimistic some of the new changes proposed by DCYF could help move children into permanent homes more quickly, which would help reduce caseloads overall. She’s also supportive of the proposed changes and encouraged that the department is asking for next year’s funding upfront, rather than waiting until there are cost overruns and requesting the money in a supplemental budget.
“It shows that they’re dedicated to making some of these changes and making the department better able and better equipped to respond to the needs of the families,” McElroy said.
The state has regularly underfunded DCYF during the budget process, which became a flashpoint after Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo tried to pin the blame for it on the General Assembly during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers last month.
When asked whether the proposed $189 million in general revenue would be enough to cover costs next fiscal year, however, DCYF Acting Director Kevin Aucoin expressed confidence.
“The expectations, investments and assumptions included in this budget are realistic and achievable,” he said.