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Lawmaker wants to remove DCYF director from political arena

Politics
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A state lawmaker wants the director of the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families to serve a fixed five-year term, arguing it would shield the job from political fallout.

State Rep. Julie Casimiro, D-North Kingstown, said she will propose legislation next session that would make the job more like the child advocate, who is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate to a five-year term.

The change, she said, would make it so “the DCYF director is not politically bound to carrying the governor’s water.”

Casimiro announced the planned legislation after Target 12 reported Monday that the DCYF director is among the lowest paid cabinet members in Rhode Island, and makes less than other child welfare directors in neighboring states.

The search for a new director is underway, as outgoing director Trista Piccola recently announced her resignation. Piccola was the subject of sharp criticism earlier this year after a 9-year-old Warwick girl under state supervision died in a bathtub.

Casimiro, who serves as deputy majority leader, is a member of the House Oversight Committee, which held hearings in the wake of the girl’s death to criticize the department’s handling of her case.

Currently, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is responsible for hiring and firing most members of her cabinet, including the DCYF director, which is tasked with keeping safe about 3,600 Rhode Island children in foster care and group homes

The legislation, Casimiro said, would ensure the DCYF director is no longer an at-will employee, meaning the agency’s leader could make difficult decisions related to the high-stakes position without having to worry about job security. In addition to the child advocate, the state’s health director is also appointed to a five-year term.

“The bill will make it so she’s not bound by any political fallout,” Casimiro said.

The bill hasn’t been drafted yet and a spokesperson for Raimondo said her office doesn’t comment on theoretical legislation.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said earlier this week they agree running DCYF is one of the “toughest jobs in state government,” putting heightened focus on who will next fill the open position.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said Casimiro’s suggestion is unusual, but not without precedent. Beyond the child advocate — who serves as an independent monitor of DCYF — Marion pointed to the federal level, where Congress gives the FBI director a fixed 10-year term.

The idea is to make the position somewhat independent of whomever occupies the top office in the executive branch, though in practice it works with varying levels of success, he said.

“As we saw from the case of former FBI Director James Comey, that only works so well. On the negative side, it disconnects the position from the political accountability that comes with being appointed by someone who has to stand for election,” Marion said.

A key feature to watch in any future legislation surrounding the job will be the rules surrounding if and how the person can fired, Marion added. If the director can only be fired for cause, it could raise questions related to the constitutional separation of powers between governmental branches.

“It could be argued that it’s the legislature attempting to interfere with a function of the executive,” he said.

The law that created the Child Advocate is silent on the issue of firing for cause, saying only the person “shall continue to hold office until his or her successor is appointed and qualified.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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