PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A local union and Rhode Island child welfare officials claim two teenagers under state care “violently assaulted” a case worker over the weekend, and the union is blaming the system’s ongoing staffing woes.
SEIU Local 580 president Matthew Gunnip, a social case worker, notified state and judicial leaders about the alleged attack, which he said happened on April 8 at a Family Service of Rhode Island group home in Smithfield.
According to Gunnip, the two teenagers attacked the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families social case worker for more than a half-hour before police were called.
“She was punched, she was kicked, her fingers pulled back,” Gunnip said. “They sprayed Lysol bleach on her, they ripped off her glasses and broke them.” He said the teens pulled her hair and clothes.
He said she suffered a concussion, is seeing double and has a large bruise on her forehead.
“It’s unconscionable,” Gunnip said.
Gunnip noted the alleged attack came after weeks of efforts by the union to raise the alarm around inappropriate placements and unsafe working conditions within the state’s child welfare system.
During a Senate Finance Committee hearing on March 30, union leadership warned lawmakers that the situation had become dangerous.
“It’s gotten so bad that DCYF staff is being asked to staff group homes at night and on the weekends,” said Heather Croteau, a DCYF supervisor and union official. “I’m not sure what it will take — a kid or an adult getting severely hurt, or worse, to fix this residential problem.”
“We did not want to be right, but here we are,” Gunnip wrote in an April 10 letter to Gov. Dan McKee, R.I. Family Court Chief Judge Michael Forte, DCYF interim director Kevin Aucoin and R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services interim secretary Ana Novais.
“We demand immediate action,” he added.
The Smithfield Police Department did not immediately comment on the alleged assault.
In a response to Gunnip’s letter Tuesday, acting director Kevin Aucoin called the incident a “horrific assault” and blamed Family Service of Rhode Island’s staffer at the group home for not intervening.
“Regrettably, the provider staff person did not intervene to assist our case worker,” Aucoin wrote in a Tuesday email obtained by Target 12. “As a result, the case worker was assaulted and sustained multiple injuries, including a head injury.”
Margaret Holland McDuff, the CEO of Family Service of Rhode Island, told Target 12 the employee in question “no longer works for FSRI,” though she disputed that there was a lengthy delay in calling 911.
McDuff insisted the group home was fully staffed and in compliance with required staffing ratios at the time of the incident, and said the organization is fully cooperating with Smithfield Police and DCYF.
Gunnip argued the assault would not have happened if not for unsafe staffing practices. The union has argued DCYF has been inappropriately using state workers at the privately-run group homes, despite the fact that DCYF staffers are not properly trained to protect themselves in violent scenarios.
“Moving forward, our members will not, under any circumstances, act as direct care residential staff,” Gunnip wrote to the state leaders. “Therefore, we will no longer perform the duties contracted vendors are paid and trained to do.”
Aucoin said they held an internal meeting two days after the alleged assault where “it was agreed DCYF direct care staff will not be assigned to provide supervision to children or youth in a provider facility.”
“In addition, members of the DCYF management team spoke to the contract provider (Family Service of Rhode Island) to address the failure of the provider’s staff person to intervene in this incident,” he added. “We will be following up with the provider to ensure that issue gets addressed with their program staff.”
In a subsequent comment to Target 12 Tuesday night, a DCYF spokesperson Damaris Teixeira said the agency has pledged full support to the social worker who was injured.
“The Department is fully invested to ensure for the safety of all our staff,” Teixeira said. “The work of DCYF front-line staff is difficult and challenging. DCYF administration values the dedication and commitment of our staff to the children and families that they serve.”
McDuff said it is unusual for DCYF to send its own case workers to work at the facility, an arrangement that she said has only happened about five times.
In Rhode Island, taxpayers fund private group homes to take care of children and teenagers, who are under the umbrella of the state’s child welfare system. Family Service of Rhode Island runs three such homes, according to McDuff.
The group homes hire their own workers, while DCYF staffers typically visit the children and teenagers every few weeks to monitor their casework, wellbeing and services. The state agency has long been a subject of controversy and staffing is often identified as a problem.
Gunnip said the social worker who was injured is currently recovering at home. Speaking on her behalf, Gunnip said, “Her main thing is that she got into social work to help people.”
“If we do not address these issues it’s going to be someone else some time soon,” he added.