PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When Kevin Aucoin took over as interim director of Rhode Island’s child welfare agency in fall 2019, he stepped into one of the most tumultuous jobs in state government.
The permanent director at the time, Trista Piccola, had resigned after a tenure marred by controversy, including the death of a 9-year-old Warwick girl under state supervision. The girl was found unresponsive in a bathtub earlier that year.
Now, more than two-and-a-half years later, Aucoin is still serving as interim director at the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families – a role that’s lacked a permanent appointee under the administrations of both Gov. Dan McKee and his predecessor Gina Raimondo.
Over that time, Aucoin has received high praise from child welfare advocates both inside and outside state government, including Child Advocate Jennifer Griffith, who has oversight of the state agency.
But Gary Sasse, who led the Department of Administration under former Gov. Don Carcieri, argues cabinet agencies shouldn’t go so long without permanent leaders because interim directors aren’t vetted and approved by the R.I. Senate. The advise-and-consent process offers some level of checks and balances between the different branches of government, Sasse added, calling it “inexcusable” that DCYF has gone so long without a director.
“What if something happens to a child and you’re dealing with an acting director?” Sasse told Target 12. “By not having confirmed directors, the credibility of an institution is threatened.”
The failure to find a permanent DCYF director has come despite the General Assembly boosting funding at the agency in recent years. The increased spending has frustrated some lawmakers, who argue the agency has both demanded more money and also been slow to fill positions.
Yet Aucoin is hardly alone in his position as an interim director. Nearly a third of Gov. Dan McKee’s 21 cabinet members aren’t permanent directors or secretaries, a Target 12 review shows.
Some of the vacancies are newer, such as the one created this week when R.I. Department of Business Regulation Director Elizabeth Tanner moved over to become state commerce secretary. Her predecessor at Commerce, Stefan Pryor, left earlier this month to run for general treasurer.
But other top jobs – such as Aucoin’s – have gone unfilled for several months or sometimes years. And while Sasse acknowledged it’s tough to consistently have a permanent leader in every state agency — especially so close to an election when turnover happens more frequently — he said administrations need to prioritize hiring leaders into critical departments to ensure somewhat stable leadership over vital and often complicated services.
“You can’t fill every position, so you need to cherry pick,” Sasse said. “For example, you may want a permanent director of Health and Human Services or at the Department of Human Services given inflation and changes in Medicaid versus, having a permanent position for DBR, where the issues are more administrative and regulatory.”
For the McKee administration, the top-job vacancies have been concentrated in the area of health and human services.
McKee has been without a permanent secretary leading the Executive Office of Health and Human Services since the last secretary, Raimondo appointee Womazetta Jones, left on May 1. The Department of Human Services hasn’t had a director in more than a year, since Courtney Hawkins exited as director shortly after Raimondo resigned to become President Biden’s U.S. commerce secretary.
DHS has had two interim directors since then, as the department has been grappling with staffing issues that have drawn significant criticism from unions.
In addition to the top jobs in the secretariat, DHS and DCYF, the Department of Health is losing its latest interim director, Dr. James McDonald. He has been serving as the department’s temporary leader ever since Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott stepped down as director in February.
(In another key area of human services, R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals Director Richard Charest joined the McKee administration more than a year ago with plans to stick around for only one. But a BHDDH spokesperson said last week Charest now “has no plans to step down from his position.”)
Despite the long-term vacancies, McKee administration officials are adamant they have worked hard to try and find viable leaders to fill the positions.
“As the governor has said previously, the administration is working diligently to find strong, qualified candidates to lead the Health and Human Services agencies that currently have strong, experienced interim leadership in place to continue the important work of these agencies,” Health and Human Services spokesperson Kerri White said this week. “They continue to make progress.”
The other state agency that currently lacks a permanent director is the R.I. Department of Emergency Management Agency, where Thomas Guthlein has filled in on an interim basis since former director Marc Pappas was transferred to the governor’s office last winter to head the state’s COVID-19 response.
McKee spokesperson Alana O’Hare said Pappas is still serving in the temporary COVID job as of now. “The team continues to monitor data related to COVID-19 and carry on the work of integrating the response into the traditional practice of medicine,” she said.
Looking forward, the administration’s biggest challenge related to recruitment is likely timing. The governor is facing a tough primary against fellow Democrats Nellie Gorbea and Helena Foulkes, which could raise concerns among potential hires about who will be in charge in six months.
Sasse acknowledged the impending election, saying he remembers how tough it was to find qualified people willing to make a commitment with such uncertainty. But he also said McKee likely moved too slowly after taking office to fill key jobs with people who might have stuck around longer if they got in earlier.
“Where they dropped the ball would have been the opportunity to recruit in the first 90 to 100 days of his administration,” Sasse said.