2015-01-29 / Front Page

DiPalma Strives to Help Kids

By Tom Walsh

State Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, DMiddletown, cares about Rhode Island’s less fortunate children. You can tell by the emotion in his voice when he talks about his work involving the troubled and often controversial state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).

“Part of what we have to do as legislators is to be the eyes, ears and mouth for those who can’t do it for themselves,” said DiPalma, co-chair of a state Senate task force that issued a January report citing numerous shortcomings in DCYF operations. “You won’t see a child testifying at the Statehouse.”

Governor Gina M. Raimondo has expressed similar concerns about DCYF.

“It’s unacceptable that an agency charged with caring for Rhode Island’s children has so many significant challenges,” the governor said. “The most vulnerable families and kids in Rhode Island deserve better.” She has pledged a nationwide search to find the right person to become the next DCYF director.

Raimondo did appoint Jamia R. McDonald, former director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, as chief strategy officer for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. In her former job, McDonald led a team that issued a critical report on DCYF’s system of care.

DiPalma, a Middletown resident whose District 12 Senate seat also includes portions of Newport, Tiverton and Little Compton, said there is “synergy” between the governor’s concerns and the conclusions reached by the Senate task force. He said McDonald’s DCYF report and the task force came to many of the same conclusions, and that her “first charge is to figure out how to bring about needed changes at DCYF.” He added, “There is vast alignment in the results brought forward by both initiatives, and we will use these to bring about the changes we need at DCYF.”

DiPalma credited Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, with “champion[ing] this cause for a long time. The task force got created because of her initiative.”

“I’m hoping we can make real progress in this,” Paiva Weed confirmed. She said funding DCYF appropriately is a challenge in that predicting how many children will need services in a given year— and what services each child will need—is difficult to predict. “One of the biggest challenges is that children aren’t widgets, and families are not widgets,” she said. “Government often shortchanges services for savings.”

Among the Senate task force’s conclusions:

. DCYF needs a contract manager to manage its relationship with Family Care Networks, which is comprised of various organizations that help children and families.

. To eliminate duplicative efforts, DCYF should assume the role of primary case manager for every family that it serves.

. DCYF should develop a revised budget for the current year and a budget for the next fiscal year to implement a cost-effective system of care that ensures the safety and well-being of vulnerable children and families.

. DCYF should update its information technology system with a design that permits sharing of information among DCYF and service providers for children in the department’s care.

. To shift its focus from “congregate care” to “communitybased and other less-restrictive services,” the state should increase investments in “proven, effective preventive services and family supports" to reduce the DCYF caseload.

. As required by state law, the governor should convene a “Children’s Cabinet” to improve outcomes for children and families served by multiple state programs.

Those directly involved with providing care maintain that Newport’s needs in caring for children in the system mirror the rest of the state. “People think that Newport’s just mansions and Bellevue Avenue,” said Martin Sinnott, CEO of Child and Family Services with offices in Middletown and Providence. “It’s not so.”

Sinnott said the Senate report seems to “take the long-term perspective. That appears to be the right direction. This is complex stuff.”

Caregivers also agree with Paiva Weed that sufficient funding remains a central concern if progress is to be made. They maintain that family-centered care in foster homes is clinically preferable and more cost-effective than congregate settings such as group homes or shelters. And, they are troubled because those who provide foster care in Rhode Island are paid 30 percent less than their Massachusetts and Connecticut counterparts.

“You have to have adequate funding,” said Lisa Guillette, executive director of Foster Forward, an East Providence organization that supports children, young adults and families impacted by foster care. "It’s pay now or pay later. I think we all agree on the recipe.”

DiPalma agreed. “It’s prevention, rather than treatment after the fact,” he said. “Some DCYF programs are working. We have to find them and invest funds there. At the end of the day, it’s just the right thing to do.”

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