RI Leadership in Developmental Disabilities Starts With Office of Health and Human Services

 Jennifer Wood    Photo by Anne pETERS

Jennifer Wood    Photo by Anne pETERS

Gina Macris

Jennifer Wood, a longtime state policy wonk with an exacting work ethic and a broad reach, is orchestrating an effort to usher in a new era for Rhode Islanders with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

And she’s creating a brand new management team to help her do it,  including Brian Gosselin, a veteran of former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, to serve as Chief Strategy Officer.  

Wood is the Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services, the top aide and top lawyer to Secretary Elizabeth Roberts, and a former chief of staff at the state Department of Education. 

Since January, when a federal judge agreed to oversee Rhode Island’s compliance with a consent decree, Wood has emerged at the forefront of the state’s response to the court case.

Wood says she is working “all day and every day” to fulfill the state’s pledge to integrate Rhode Island adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities into the larger community of work, living and leisure. 

That pledge was made two years ago when then-Governor Lincoln Chafee signed the consent decree, promising the federal government that Rhode Island would end the segregation of more than 3,400 adults, most of them working in sheltered workshops or spending their days in isolated programs.

The consent decree gets its authority from the 1999 Olmstead decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which says individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities must receive supports in the least restrictive setting that is therapeutically appropriate.

 In a recent interview, Wood emphasized that the goals of the consent decree “are the changes we should and would be making anyway, and it’s just beneficial in certain ways that we’re doing it within that structure.”

Wood presented most of the state’s testimony during a day-long evidentiary hearing on compliance before Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. in U.S. District Court in April.

Other evidence before McConnell included statements from families and advocates recounting failures in service and the opinion of a court monitor that Rhode Island must immediately lay groundwork to implement the consent decree if it is to achieve its ultimate goals by the time the agreement expires in 2024.

McConnell subsequently ordered the state to complete nearly two dozen tasks - each with a short-term deadline - or face contempt of court proceedings. (Read the order here.)

Several deadlines occurred July 1, and a new wave will hit at the end of the month or the beginning of August.

In the meantime, two top developmental disabilities officials announced their departure. Maria Montanaro, the director of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) left June 24. Charles Williams, Director of the Division of Disabilities, will retire July 22. 

A third official, Andrew McQuaide, the Chief Transformation Officer at the Division of Disabilities, recently announced that he, too, will leave July 22. (Read related article here. ) 

“There’s a lot of change going on, especially in the leadership area,” Wood said.

“We’re the stability factor,” she said of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

Wood said she is building a very skilled management team, with leadership and authority coming from the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, to work on the consent decree and begin transforming a system mired in myth or what she calls “urban legend.”

“I use the metaphor that we’ve got a lot of plates spinning, and we need to move on all of these fronts at one time,” she said.

“We’ve got to prioritize the specific deadlines and commitments made in Court, but none of those things happen without a lot of other pieces being in place,” like getting “basic payment systems in place; getting basic communication systems in place with our own staff.”

 According to the consent decree itself, the appropriate staff were to have been trained in how to carry out its provisions by Sept. 1, 2014.

 “Our own staff, I think, need substantial orientation and awareness of what the consent decree actually requires, as opposed to what everyone says and thinks it requires, which are two different things,” Wood said.

“In the absence of clear and transparent communication, and authoritative communication, then, always, rumor, innuendo, and urban legend will rule the day,” she said.

Wood says the state needs to do better with its external communications because, “Families are out there wondering: What are you doing? When are you doing it?”

A communications plan - one of the tasks McConnell wanted done by July 1 - has been submitted to the federal court. Like the staff training, the communication plan should have been in place nearly two years ago, according to the consent decree. 

Wood emphasized that the communications plan is not a “static” document but a blueprint for action.                                                        

Much of what she and her staff have had to confront in trying to implement the consent decree is “gaps in basic management systems at BHDDH,” Wood said.

“I find it wholly unacceptable that sometimes what we’re talking about in court is: ‘Did an invoice get paid?’ ” Wood said.

 “One embarrassing example, which I shouldn’t even bring up, is ‘Can you get the consent decree monitor paid?’ ” Wood said.

 “I don’t trivialize the bureaucratic and administrative processes, because when those don’t work, nothing works,” Wood said.

 “Before I get out of bed in the morning, that should just be done,” she said, “but you know what? It’s bureaucracy, so you don’t always have that in place.”

McConnell’s detailed order, issued May 18, gave the state 12 calendar days to get itself up to date with payments due the court monitor, Charles Moseley, and the Consent Decree Coordinator, Mary Madden. The judge also said the state must never again miss a payday for either of them as long as their respective contracts run.

The order touched the tip of an iceberg, for the state pays its bills so slowly that many direct service providers must borrow to meet payroll while they wait for the reimbursement to which they are entitled.

“I hate to hear those stories, but, of course, I’ve heard those stories,” Wood responded.

The focus should not be on paying the bills, but on “transforming basic services that are fundamental to the success of our clients,” Wood said.

Initially, “we had struggles in getting people working together, to have everyone pointed in the same direction as to what the consent decree meant and how it should be implemented,” Wood said.

 Besides BHDDH, two other state agencies are directly involved in implementing the consent decree:  the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Office of Rehabilitation Services at the Department of Human Services.

(According to testimony during budget deliberations, there is a growing opinion that the Department of Labor at Training also should be at the table.)

Each agency is a like a silo with its own way of doing things, and the purpose of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services is to get them to function as an “integrated whole,” Wood said.

Wood explained the role of each member of the management team:

  • Brian Gosselin, new Senior Strategy Officer at EOHHS, will focus exclusively on developmental disabilities for the foreseeable future. He is an expert on performance-based contracting, which must be in place by August 1, according to McConnell’s order. Raises in staff wages and several other changes related to the financial arrangements the state has with private service providers also must be in place by Aug. 1. Gosselin is a fellow in the Government Performance Lab at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The Performance Lab, along with the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services, has consulted with the state in developing the new payment methods McConnell implemented. An accounting professional, Gosselin worked his way up in the Massachusetts budget office to the position of Chief of Staff in the Executive Office of Administration and Finance.
  • Dacia Read, until now the director of the Children’s Cabinet, has taken on an expanded role as Interagency Policy and Implementation Director at EOHHS. In that capacity, she is providing analysis and support for key initiatives at BHDDH and other agencies, according to a spokeswoman for Wood. 
  • Kim Paull, Director of Analytics at EOHHS, is working with Consent Decree Coordinator Madden and others to create an interim data solution to a requirement in McConnell’s order that the state make available client-specific information on employment and other services by the end of July.
  • Mary Madden was hired in January as EOHHS Consent Decree Coordinator in response to pressure from the court monitor and the U.S. Department of Justice that the implementation of the consent decree lacked leadership. Wood said she works closely with Madden on a daily basis.
  • Jane Gallivan, who will serve as acting Director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities, is newly retired from the same post in Delaware and has extensive experience in the equivalent position in Maine, where she led the implementation of a long-running federal consent decree in a de-institutionalization case..
  • BHDDH recently hired Tracey Cunningham as an Employment Specialist to lead a shift toward the supported employment services required by the consent decree. McConnell’s order gives the state until August 1 to hire a Program Developer or Quality Improvement Officer who will lead improvements in services and supports for clients. An existing quality improvement unit at BHDDH investigates neglect and abuse.
  • The Division of Disabilities at BHDDH will also have a new Transformation Officer and a yet-to-be named Chief Operations Officer.
  • Fiscal support will come from Christopher Feisthamel, the chief financial officer at BHDDH, and Adam Brousseau, the department’s fiscal analyst.