PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — For the first time in nearly four years, Rhode Island is poised to have a permanent leader at the state’s child welfare agency.
Gov. Dan McKee announced Tuesday he’s picked Ashley Deckert to serve as director of the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). Deckert will replace interim director Kevin Aucoin, who has led the controversial state agency since the last permanent leader, Trista Piccola, resigned under a cloud of criticism in 2019.
“Ashley has dedicated her successful career to enhancing the wellbeing of children and families,” McKee said in a statement. “She is an experienced leader with a proven track record and I am grateful she is bringing that knowledge and experience Rhode Island.”
Deckert will come to the state from Illinois where she’s spent more than 16 years working in the field of child welfare, according to the governor’s office. She’s currently the director of public policy and government affairs at the Illinois Collaboration on Youth, a Chicago-based child welfare advocacy group.
Her annual salary will begin at $135,000, although that could increase to $162,500 beginning next month, unless there’s legislative opposition.
“I am extremely honored to be considered for the position,” Deckert said in a statement. “If confirmed, I look forward to working with amazing and dedicated staff, community-based providers, the Rhode Island General Assembly, the union, and other pertinent stakeholders to impact systems change and work toward continual improvement of the child and family well-being system in Rhode Island.”
DCYF has been a hotbed of controversy over the years, as the department is responsible for overseeing the tumultuous divisions of child welfare, child protective services, juvenile correctional services and permanency.
The last permanent leader, Piccola, came under intense public scrutiny after an explosive report showed her agency failed multiple times to intervene leading up the death of a 9-year-old girl with disabilities. She resigned shortly thereafter.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the agency struggled to find suitable places for children under state custody to live, resulting in many having to live inside a psychiatric and behavioral hospital for weeks and sometimes months at a time.
Last week, state officials confirmed two teenagers under state care “violently assaulted” a case worker. Local union members argued the alleged attack came after weeks of the union trying to raise the alarm about staffing challenges that had resulted in inappropriate placements and unsafe working conditions across operations.
Deckert’s appointment has to be confirmed by the R.I. Senate. To improve the department, Deckert said they “must center youth and family voice and look at providing services and support further upstream in order to prevent involvement in the child protection system.”
“Furthermore, I firmly believe that a paradigm shift is needed; we must use the levers within and outside of our system in order to create solutions that acknowledge the whole parent,” she added. “When parents thrive, children thrive, but it requires a shift in the way we see parents that come to our attention.”
Eli Sherman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.