DCYF in the spotlight: Forum explores grim realities for R.I. kids in state custody

2017-10-12 | The Providence Journal

Oct. 12--PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Children in state care will only thrive when state agencies work together and community members step up, panelists at the Providence Journal's Publick Occurrences forum stressed on Wednesday night.

"This is a societal problem," said Family Court Chief Judge Michael Forte. "People can't expect one department with very limited resources to fix all of the social problems."

He added: "People have to come forward and become a part of the solution."

A lack of consistent leadership within the state's Department of Children, Youth and Families, abuse in group homes, and dubious "safety plans" for young children have been highlighted in a series by Providence Journal reporters Jennifer Bogdan and Tom Mooney.

WATCH THE FORUM (Note: There were some technical difficulties with audio, so video begins playing where the sound returns):

The sold-out forum, hosted in partnership with Leadership Rhode Island and Rhode Island College, explored the often grim realities for kids in state custody. Panelists from across the child-welfare spectrum, including two adults that were raised in foster care, aired grievances and spoke about possible solutions to one of the dark spots in Rhode Island government.

Jennifer Griffith, the state's child advocate, shared her own frustrations working in the system, which was run like a "dictatorship" before the arrival of Trista Piccola, who took the reins in January. Piccola has a background in social work, while her predecessor Jamia McDonald did not, Griffith pointed out.

Griffith was frank in her statements, saying that while "the opioid crisis, mental health and the lack of subsidized housing in Rhode Island" are all important issues, the state must also increase funding for DCYF which deals with the intersection of all of these problems.

Sue Pearlmutter, the dean of Rhode Island College School of Social Work, added that the training for workers in group homes is "not working anymore."

"Substance use, mental illness, and the fact that poverty in Rhode Island is growing are huge factors," Pearlmutter said. "We're dealing with different, very diverse families now."

Other states keep better track of families using state services, she noted, arguing that there is little to no communication among the Rhode Island health services departments.

"We have to make sure our parents have access to the very best substance abuse programs, mental health care, and the resources that would lift them out of poverty," said Piccola. "If they did -- I wouldn't be here as much."

During a question-and-answer session, a man stood up and said he is a foster parent. But he doubts he'd do it again, he said, visibly upsetting panelists and attendees alike. He has no guidance, and no support from the agency, he said.

His moving account led the group back to its core purpose: creating stable, loving homes for the state's most vulnerable children.

Bruce Perreault, a BankRI personal bank representative who was abandoned at age 2 and adopted five years later, spoke directly to the foster father.

"Go home and give your child a big hug," Perreault said. "Please, don't become discouraged."

He added: "You're giving them something that they are going to remember for the rest of their lives. You are giving them hope."

Michelle Saunders, an Ocean State Job Lot executive who grew up in foster care, stressed the importance of a stable life for children. Had she not been adopted, she may have ended up like one of her siblings, she said. One died of a drug overdose and another in jail for murder.

"Find a support system," Perreault said. "If you get together with other families, your voice becomes louder."

-- jtempera@providencejournal.com

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On Twitter: @jacktemp

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