Legislators who publicly administered a tongue-lashing against Director Trista Piccola of the DCYF want to punish those criminally culpable for the horrifying death of yet another child in state care. Certainly the social workers, lawyers, supervisors, and others who showed callous disregard should be fired and referred to the Attorney General for possible prosecution. But can they be?
Here is the crux of a much larger systemic problem: despite enormous power to remove children from their homes and even to subject them to adverse conditions, the DCYF has never been accredited.
In 2010, years before Dr. Piccola arrived, both chambers unanimously approved bills to get this chronically inept Department professionally accredited. This became law (RIGL 42-72-5.3 Accreditation) without the signature of Governor Carcieri, who had been named a defendant in a lawsuit brought by his own Child Advocate.
In that same year, the Legislature and Governor obligated taxpayers for state loans of $75 million to 38 Studios and $5 million to Capco Steel. Both borrowers soon defaulted while the General Assembly never set aside funds to accredit the DCYF.
Rep. Steven Costantino, who chaired House Finance and promoted both loans, went on to direct the Department of Health and Human Services with direct oversight for the DCYF and the Training School (RITS) for youthful offenders. By 2014, when I and others met with him, he showed no interest in accrediting those agencies even though RITS had spent forty years under a federal consent decree, probably the longest in the nation, to address long-standing problems.
He touted the decreasing census at RITS without noting how many youth simply disappeared with no attempt to follow them. Some would later be found as victims or perpetrators of major crimes. Shelters contracted by the DCYF would eventually be closed with staff accused of sexually trafficking youth in state care.
Rhode Island has an entrenched culture of helping family members and friends get state jobs whether or not they are qualified. Once hired, those workers are often protected by public-service employee unions that hold inordinate power over many elected officials because of the money and votes unions can deliver or withhold.
Vitriolic demands for Dr. Piccola’s resignation only reinforce this problem. Oversight Committee members insist she must fire workers who are not doing their jobs. But if she upsets the unions, their officers, members, and lobbyists will pressure the legislators to harass her and threaten her job, as some legislators did on television at the recent Oversight hearing.
“I think your whole department is a disaster and should be wiped out,” one representative exploded. That would only recreate the problem. Dedicated, seasoned workers would lose their jobs. Eventually the General Assembly would establish a new agency to protect at-risk children but without professional standards or an external system of accountability. Legislators would join the rush to get their family members into new state jobs. Public-employee unions would reinvigorate a culture of self-protection at public expense.
Rhode Island deserves far better than driving out any DCYF director who threatens the status quo. We need legislators with courage to establish a strict code of campaign finance reform to end the unions’ power over them. We need legislators to set aside funds for accreditation of the DCYF and to protect the director when she follows through and requires excellence from their staff. Let’s break the cycle of recrimination and undertake this deep cultural change to systematically raise standards for this essential Department to finally win and maintain professional accreditation.