LACONIA — Caseworkers for the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families investigated allegations of abuse or neglect at least twice at the home where 5-year-old Dennis Vaughan Jr. died last December, and in both instances the complaints were determined to be unfounded, according to DCYF correspondence sent to Dennis Vaughan's grandmother, Sherry Connor.

The child lived with his grandmother and four siblings at the Wingate Village apartment complex on Blueberry Lane. First responders were dispatched to Connor's apartment last Dec. 24, for a medical issue. Dennis was transported to Lakes Region General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The New Hampshire attorney general's office called the child's death suspicious. According to court records, “The Laconia Police Department are investigating the matter as suspicious, as the child had significant bruising on his body.”

Nobody has been charged in the boy's death, the AG's office has not released autopsy results or said how Dennis died. Repeated inquiries to the office from The Daily Sun seeking more information have been unsuccessful.

“I appreciate your inquiry, however, at this time, I am unable to provide any further information,” Erin Fitzgerald, an assistant attorney general in the Criminal Justice Bureau who has been assigned to the case, said by email on April 15.

It's not clear if there were more than two DCYF inquiries into the Connor home, but the first took place in early 2018, when Connor was living on Union Avenue in Laconia, according to correspondence obtained by The Daily Sun. It was launched over concerns about abuse, according to a March 2018 letter to Connor signed by Ann Farley, a child protective services worker in the Laconia office of DCYF, and Jessica Clark, a supervisor in that office. 

“The Division has determined that the allegations in this child protection referral have been determined to be unfounded,” the letter to Connor said. It goes on to suggest that, in order to avoid future concerns about the welfare of the children, Connor should call the New Hampshire Help Line at 2-1-1, contact Lakes Region Community Services for support, make sure that all contact between the children and their parents are supervised, and be sure that the children receive timely medical care.

Attempts to contact Connor or her representative were unsuccessful. A phone number for her listed online was not answered, and a message said the mailbox was full.

The second investigation into the Connor home took place in early 2019, “due to concerns for neglect and physical abuse,” according to a second letter to Connor, this one from Emily Wilcox, a child protective services worker in Laconia, and Kelley Andrews, a supervisor in the local office. That allegation was also determined to be “unfounded,” and the letter suggested that Connor “please consider counseling for all of the children.”

The source of the abuse and neglect allegations are not clear in the documents obtained by the newspaper.

Emails sent By The Daily Sun to the four workers in the Laconia DCYF office went unanswered, and an email seeking more information about DCYF's handling of the Vaughan case brought a one-sentence response: “State and federal laws require us to protect the privacy and confidentiality of individuals involved with DCYF,” wrote Jake Leon, the spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, the parent agency of DCYF.

Only about 8% of the abuse and neglect allegations received by DCYF are found to be substantiated after an investigation, according to the most recent numbers available. That's significantly higher than it used to be in New Hampshire, where the substantiation rate for years was about 3%, far below most other states.

But a couple of high-profile child deaths in the southern part of the state prompted a public outcry demanding reforms at DCYF, and the Legislature responded by funding more caseworker positions, and the longtime DCYF director was ousted.

Now the state is more in line with the national substantiation rate of about 9 percent, and the 1,335 “founded” cases in 2018 was almost double the number that were substantiated in 2015.

According to the DCYF Annual Data Book 2019, the agency's intake section received more than 29,000 calls in fiscal year 2018, the last year for which complete numbers and dispositions are available. It screened-in 18,834 of those calls for further review.

Of those 18,834 calls, DCYF referred 12,141 (64%) of the new “assessments” to local DCYF offices for further review, eliminating 6,693 (36%) based on law and DCYF regulations.

“I had three piles on my desk,” said Judy Anderson of Gilford, a former DCYF social worker who conducted such assessments for seven years, from 1994 to 2000. “Could die, one pile. Unlikely to die but will suffer trauma, another pile. Low risk, a third pile.”

The state categorizes its DCYF investigations much the same way.

The most serious are the Level I cases in which a child is considered to be in imminent danger. They made up 19% of new assessments taken in during 2018. Caseworkers are expected to investigate those cases within 24 hours.

Caseworkers have 48 hours to respond to Level II cases (27%), and 72 hours to respond to Level III cases (53%) that were screened-in.

The law requires all credible reports of abuse and neglect to be completed within 60 days, though most take longer than that.

“There aren't enough hours in the day,” Anderson said, noting that the turnover rate among caseworkers is extraordinarily high, partly because of burnout.

“You start by analyzing who’s making the report – is it a neighbor, friend, relative, the schools? The closer the reporter knows the family, the better the information. That way you avoid the whisper down the lane,” Anderson said. “You call up your reporter and you ask, how long have you been noticing that? Tell me everything. Sometimes it takes three hours to hear what the family dynamics are.”

Anderson, who said she was fired from her job as a caseworker in Laconia “because I was removing too many children” from their homes, said, “you have to talk to all these witnesses that see the children, and then you have to do several home visits. And you have to go unannounced. That’s the big one.”

Making such assessments more difficult is that the law, absent a court order, usually requires a parent's permission before a caseworker can enter a home.

“Generally, you need the parent's permission to investigate the parent,” said Moira O'Neill, director of the state Office of the Child Advocate. “That’s not DCYF, that’s the law.”

O'Neill, who said she couldn't speak specifically about the Vaughan case, said there are many valid reasons that claims of child abuse or neglect might not be substantiated by a caseworker.

“A child might’ve been abused by a boyfriend,” at the time the abuse claim was made, she said, “but if the boyfriend has moved out, the danger is no longer there.”

Likewise, she said, “did the parent engage in treatment for substance abuse, go to parenting classes” or take other steps that stabilized the family dynamic? If so, that may improve the situation and merit a finding that the threat no longer exists.

“In some ways just assessing is helpful because it gets people back on track,” she said.

O'Neill said having two “unfounded” investigations preceding the death of a child “doesn’t look good for the agency, but we don’t have all the details to know that means, because there are a lot of cases where abuse isn’t happening and something bad is still happening.”

She said her office will be reviewing the death of Dennis Vaughan, though the findings of that investigation won't be published until after the criminal case is completed.

“We have a special system-learning review. We're going to look at what were the pressures in the system that caused decisions to be made?”

As part of that review, she said, “we’re not looking to blame and hold a person accountable, we’re looking to hold the system accountable. There’s a reason those decisions are made and that’s what we’re going to try to figure out, so a better decision is made next time.

The surviving children, ages 12, 10, 10 and 3, are no longer living with their grandmother.

“It’s our understanding that all the surviving children are safe and we check on them on occasion to make sure they’re OK,” O'Neill said.

To report suspected child abuse or neglect call 1-800-894-5533.

•••

To contact Roger Carroll, email him at rogercarroll@laconiadailysun.com

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