OCA: DCF Hotline Investigation Office of the Child Advocate OCA: DCF Hotline Investigation

Investigation into the DCF Hotline System
A joint investigation by the Child Advocate and the Attorney General
released September 2003


A synopsis of the report is given below.  You may access the full, 23-page report in Microsoft Word format for viewing or dowloading by following the link: Investigation into the DCF Hotline System
 
 
INTRODUCTION

This report is the culmination of a joint investigation by the Child Advocate and the Attorney General into the Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) system of investigating and acting on reports of abuse and neglect made to the DCF Hotline.  The investigation was prompted by an apparent anomaly: a rapid decline in the number of reports of abuse and neglect that were substantiated by DCF at the same time that the number of reports made to the Hotline were rising.

SUMMARY

As a result of the investigation, we have confirmed that the rate of substantiated reports has dropped significantly over the past six years for a number of reasons.  However, the most troubling finding of the investigation was an unexpected one:  a pattern within DCF of failing to take action to protect children even after physical and other abuse has been substantiated by the agency, and failing to follow up to ensure that services are provided to and utilized by families after referrals to community services have been made.  An obvious lack of awareness on the part of the DCF administration of the depth and seriousness of this issue has been unveiled.

FINDINGS

1.  The rate at which DCF staff have substantiated reports of child abuse or neglect has dropped significantly over the last six fiscal years for a number of reasons:

 

  • During FY 1997, DCF substantiated well over half of the reports of suspected abuse assigned for investigation; by FY 2002 the number of reports of suspected abuse substantiated by staff dropped significantly to slightly more than one quarter of the reports that were investigated. 
  • At the beginning of the reporting period that we examined, the number of reports of suspected abuse was extremely high and well above national averages, with substantiations of well over half of the abuse and neglect allegations.  This level of activity overwhelmed DCF and seriously impaired its ability to adequately protect the most vulnerable children. 
  • Many factors contributed to the subsequent substantial decline in the rate at which reports of suspected abuse were substantiated, most notably amendments to the statutes governing child protective services which were administered by DCF, reducing reportable incidents, together with the resulting formal changes in DCF policy related to reportable situations.
  • In addition, institution of an Administrative Review Process may also have contributed to lower substantiation levels because the appeal and case review process made some DCF personnel hesitant to substantiate allegations of abuse and neglect in marginal situations.

2.  Our review of the declining substantiation levels showed that DCF personnel were failing to follow official policies and procedures concerning reports of suspected abuse that resulted in a failure to properly and timely respond to child abuse.  For many children, protective services from DCF arrived only after multiple reports of their abuse and neglect.  Tragically, some individuals making Hotline reports were required to contact the Hotline several times over a period of years before any significant help was provided to the child and family.  For instance:

 

a.     Nearly 700 cases of substantiated physical abuse are improperly closed each year immediately after the allegation of abuse is substantiated, without DCF providing any protective services to the child and family involved.  This number equates to an average of 28% of the cases of substantiated abuse every year.  The Department’s own review of a very limited pool of such cases indicates 4% were potentially erroneously closed, and another 16% of such closures were questionable.

 

b.     On average, 2600 investigations each year are closed as unsubstantiated within 24 hours of referral from the Hotline to regional investigators.  Such case closings often result from overrides of the Hotline screening decision by regional DCF personnel.  Such regional reversal clearly violates DCF policy, and was the basis of a finding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that the Department’s operations were in need of improvement.

 

c.      In about 10% of the reported cases, allegations of abuse are substantiated, but the family’s case is closed and the family is referred to other agencies for social and corrective services.  Case files, however, showed no evidence of follow-up by the DCF to determine if the family was actually connected to a specific service provider or ever received the services they needed.

 

3.  Over the last six years substantial changes in agency policy appear to have been communicated to staff through informal e-mails and unrecorded management meeting discussions.  Senior managers at DCF have often relied on each level of the organization to disseminate its instructions to the next level rather than following a more structured mechanism to disseminate policy directives throughout the Department and ensure that all staff are familiar with the new policies.

 

4.  It is clear that Bureau Chiefs and other managers in the Department do not routinely use administrative data, such as that provided to the Office of the Child Advocate from the LINK system[2], to manage the quality of programs under their supervision.  The Bureau of Child Welfare began probing some of the anomalies identified through this review only after they were brought to the Bureau Chief’s attention by the Child Advocate’s staff.

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

Sadly, the recommendations flowing from this investigation are much the same as the recommendations from the Child Advocate and the Attorney General in many other reports produced previously.  While the drop in the substantiation rate appears primarily to be a response to statutory and policy changes, we have noted a troubling level of questionable dispositional determinations.  Beyond the clinical implications of the decisions that were made, the continued failure of managers of the Department to identify and correct systemic problems in its organizational response to child abuse and neglect causes grave concern.

  1. The Department of Children and Families must improve its processes of investigation and assessment.  A comprehensive, ongoing, formal assessment of functioning is essential to establishing the safety of children and the treatment needs of families.  The number of times allegations of abuse or neglect are unsubstantiated, or substantiated and closed without services (action), for children who need protection, reflects a lack of comprehensiveness and depth in the family studies undertaken by Department line staff.  Increased training and on the job supervision must direct staff to implement effective social work/child welfare practices concerning individualized, holistic, family assessment.  The focus of the decision making process throughout protective services intake must be on the welfare of the children involved.  Case records indicate that investigative social workers and supervisors often do not complete thorough assessments, or do not adequately document the assessments, so that reasonable determinations of disposition can be pursued.  There is no evidence that DCF has implemented the Child Advocate’s earlier recommendations that more than two reports of abuse or neglect concerning a family should be reviewed by a multi-disciplinary team to determine the most appropriate course of action for children involved.  We repeat that recommendation with a special urgency here.
  2. The Department of Children and Families must be more willing to invoke the authority of the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters if families are unwilling to voluntarily participate in services.  DCF regularly fails to enlist the authority of the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters, even though the Department’s experience in bringing court action has been extremely positive.  Data maintained by the Courts shows that court rulings favor departmental motions in 90% of the cases actually brought.  Despite this, investigative staff are very conservative in their willingness to seek judicial support for protective service orders where necessary.
  3. The Department must develop an effective internal quality assurance program.  DCF executive staff, managers, and supervisors have available multiple sources of data and information concerning the processes employed by the staff under their direction.  There is no evidence, however, that those in authority within the Department make effective use of this data to monitor agency performance.  The Office of the Child Advocate was not designed to provide ongoing monitoring for the DCF and should not be functioning as a substitute for effective internal quality assurance by DCF itself.  Quality assurance systems can and must be designed and used to provide accurate, timely data to those responsible for policy implementation in a form that allows managers to monitor and improve the operations of the functional units who report to them.
  4. DCF executive staff, bureau chiefs, managers, and supervisors must receive training in data systems and quality assurance processes.  During the course of this investigation, staff appeared unaware or uninterested in using the management information resources placed at their disposal.  Training of those in authority in the Department must include instruction on the effective use of information for quality improvement.
  5. The management structure and protocols for internal communication at the Department of Children and Families must be revamped.  Regulations and policy are the publicly accepted statement of the parameters of DCF operation.  Unrecorded or unofficial operating instructions undermine staff’s ability to perform the functions assigned to them appropriately, and leave little protection for families attempting to fend off unwarranted state intrusion into their lives.  The use of informal communications, and hand-me-down information results in a decision making process guided by piecemeal instructions and lack of public accountability.
  6. The Department of Children and Fami1ies should develop a long term planning unit that operates separately from program administration.

-       DCF still does not appear to do adequate long term planning.  Once again, the Child Advocate and Attorney General recommend that DCF undertake an ongoing comprehensive analysis of the needs of all children reported to the Department who require protection.  This exercise should be part of a systematic long-term planning effort, integral to anticipating and meeting the needs of children at risk while protecting the organizational resources from being inundated.

 

-   A meaningful planning function should be separate and independent from those divisions of DCF responsible for program administration.  Decision-making suffers when the pressures of the day drive functions that should be independent.  Proper long term planning involves careful assessment of future needs, matching those needs to existing programs and ascertaining what change is needed in order to serve children better.

7.  The Department of Children and Families should review the need for legislative changes to ensure that the Department has the requisite authority it needs to protect children who are being abused or neglected.  This report has highlighted systemic weaknesses in DCF’s responsiveness to reports of abuse of children.  In light of the findings of this report DCF should carefully review whether additional legislation is needed to improve DCF’s responsiveness to these critical issues.



[1] The investigation was requested by the Chairperson of the General Assembly Select Committee on Children, who asked that this review track changes in policy that potentially affected outcomes within the system and identify potential areas of concern related to current Department policies and practices around entry of children and families to the State’s child welfare protective services delivery system.

[2] LINK is the DCF management information system.  It contains descriptive and decision-making data and case narratives concerning all children reported to the agency.