Legislation addresses some of child advocates' concerns

Parents and child behavioral health advocates hope a recent report from a state watchdog office will spur action at the Statehouse this session.

In a report this week, the Office of the Child Advocate highlighted numerous areas of concern about the state Division of Children, Youth and Families, saying the child protection agency lacks sufficient workforce and resources, doesn’t pay enough attention to psychological abuse and isn’t ensuring that children are safe in residential treatment centers.

But it also described a broader “unacceptable delay in responding to children’s needs” and called for a comprehensive system of care for children’s behavioral health to prevent families from ending up in the child protection system in the first place.

“DCYF performance, complicated by an opioid epidemic, has made clear that waiting for children to be abused, neglected or delinquent is waiting too long,” the report stated. “Prevention is the only moral and practical approach to intervening for children.”

The state took steps in that direction in 2016 when lawmakers directed the state departments of education and health and human services to develop a comprehensive system that both helps children and reduces reliance on ineffective, expensive interventions. Goals include coordinating care for children across multiple service systems — for example, those in the child protection or juvenile justice systems — and ensuring that services are family-driven and community-based. Lawmakers also are considering new legislation this session to further implement such a system.

Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, the bill would require the expansion of home and community-based services for children, including mobile crisis programs in which clinicians would meet children at home or school.

“So you get upstream, and you build the infrastructure to prevent bad things from happening down the road,” said Feltes, a Democrat from Concord. It’s a cost-effective investment that has been used in other states.

Under the current system, parents face two traumatizing options: calling police or taking their children to hospital emergency rooms, where they often wait days for treatment beds to open up, said Dellie Champagne, community engagement coordinator for the Children’s Behavioral Health Collaborative. She’s seen both scenarios first hand. The first time her son, now 24, attempted suicide, police removed him from his middle school in handcuffs, she said.

“That’s how we treated a sick child. So, 1,100 other students saw that. That is not a good message. That is not how we as a society should be treating our mentally ill,” she said. “When you’re ill and you’re handcuffed as a child, that’s a very wrong message. They don’t belong in the back of a police cruiser.”

While there are other important provisions in Feltes’ legislation, the mobile crisis piece should be a “no-brainer” for lawmakers, said Rebecca Whitley, the children’s behavioral health policy coordinator for the New Futures advocacy group.

“This is how we do things in New Hampshire, on a more gradual basis, but we’re in a crisis,” she said. “This is a very easy way to make a big dent and support children and families.”

Click here to read the full article on the Associated Press.