Editor’s note: The following report was provided by the Legislative Press and Information Bureau.
STATE HOUSE — “It’s so egregious and outrageous, I can’t even believe it’s happening,” said by Rep. Patricia Serpa (D-Dist. 27, West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick) after reading the latest report of the Child Fatality Review Panel.
The House Committee on Oversight met Thursday to hear a review of the December 2017 report on child fatalities by Rhode Island Child Advocate Jennifer Griffith.
The report examined six cases between April 12 and Dec. 5, 2017. Two of the cases involved the fatality of a child, while the other four involved a near fatality. The cases involved children ranging in age from two months to two years old.
Lawmakers learned during the sometimes emotional meeting that a social worker recommended that Tobi Olawusi, who died last year after suffering multiple broken bones, be allowed to go home with his parents, even though there were significant mental health issues in the home.
Many of the legislators were shocked to learn that the case worker is still employed by the Department of Children, Youth and Families. DCYF Director Trista Piccola told the committee that a decision was made not to fire the worker after a review, but gave no further information, citing it as a personnel matter.
Griffith told the panel that a DCYF social worker reported to a Family Court judge that the mother was doing well, despite having knowledge of the mother’s mental difficulties.
“The social worker left things out,” said Griffith. “If the judge had known, they may have called witnesses, they may not have agreed to the safety plan. They would have said, ‘She’s not following through, she’s not taking her medication.’ They would have been privy to information which the judge was not. Yes, the judge approves safety plans, but if the letter is not accurate and is omitting major issues, then the judge isn’t going to call witnesses.”
Piccola took over as director in 2017. Since that time, about 143 staff were hired, including 100 new positions. But she indicated that the agency still has a workload problem, saying DCYF’s investigations have gone up 20 percent, while removals of children have gone up 15 percent.
The Office of Child Advocate is tasked with the review of all fatalities or near fatalities involving abuse or neglect of children involved or recently involved with the Department of Children, Youth and Families. The House Oversight Committee began reviewing these fatalities last year when the child advocate issued a report detailing the deaths of four children in DCYF custody.
Representative Serpa announced at the end of the meeting that the committee will be meeting with the DCYF director and child advocate again on March 8 to continue the investigation.