Children suffering psychological abuse are underserved by New Hampshire’s child protection system, according to a report released Monday by the state Office of the Child Advocate.
Part of the problem is a vague state law defining child abuse and neglect that discourages action, said Moira O’Neill, who directs the office. But the report also describes cases of parents who continue to “berate and bully” their children while under state supervision.
During one supervised visit, a mother told her children if they did not come home, she would lose their Social Security money and thus their house. She also accused one child of causing the family’s troubles and suggested the child not return home.
“It’s clear that these kinds of actions, just like hitting someone or breaking bone, can have equally damaging effects,” O’Neill said in an interview. “I think we as a culture tolerate it, but now we really know how pervasive and how deeply affective it is in terms of impacting a child’s health and well-being.”
The Office of the Child Advocate was created last year as part of an effort to reform the state’s child protection system in the wake of two toddler deaths in 2014 and 2015. Though lawmakers also approved funding for preventive services and additional caseworkers at the Division of Children, Youth and Families, the first annual report from the advocate’s office concludes much work remains.
“We know children need protection because they cannot protect themselves,” the report states. “Yet the law and its interpretations stop short of children’s best interest. We defer to the interests of other parties. The definitions of abuse and neglect are themselves vague and disempowering of caseworkers seeking to protect children. In the interest of children, that must change.”
Jeffrey Meyers, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services which oversees DCYF, said he agrees with the report’s general themes and that most of the recommendations fit priorities the department is working on, planning to address or would like to implement if it had more resources. But he said the report at times obscures the fact that DCYF is only one part of a larger system that includes law enforcement, courts, schools, families and others.
“DCYF is, at its core, a crisis response system, and its ability to strengthen families and keep children safe stems from supportive communities strengthening families before DCYF is every involved,” he wrote in a letter to O’Neil.
The report follows previous external reviews that found the division lacks sufficient workforce, training and resources. Though the average caseload for DCYF assessment workers has dropped from 90 cases to 44, it still remains far higher than the recommended standard of 12. The report recommends funding additional positions, but it also argues more broadly for accelerating efforts to create a comprehensive system of care for children’s behavioral health to prevent families from ending up in the system in the first place.
“The time has come to stop waiting for children to appear bruised and battered before we step in to help,” the report states.
Lawmakers are considering legislation to increase DCYF staff and further implement a system of care.
“By far the most important takeaways from today’s report are the needs to finally fully fund child protection staff, institute overdue programmatic changes like permanently reinstating voluntary services, and implement cost-effective prevention including a comprehensive children’s system of care,” said Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord.
The 55-page report also makes recommendations in areas such as juvenile justice and residential treatment. As of September, DCYF had 336 children placed in institutional, residential facilities, but the report said children often are placed wherever there is an available bed rather than the facility that matches their needs.
“There are no assurances that children’s needs are being met in residential care, or even that they are safe,” the report states. It recommends funding for 15 nurses to monitor the health of children in residential treatment and requiring DCYF to contract with facilities for specific services.
In his inaugural address this month, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said that the state had made great strides in reforming DCYF but that there was more work to do in filling job openings and reforming the foster care system. He declined to comment on the report Monday, referring questions to the Department of Health and Human Services, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Rebecca Whitley, the children’s behavioral health policy coordinator for the New Futures advocacy group, said her organization fully supports the report’s recommendations and hopes lawmakers will back legislation prioritizing children.
“The ongoing mental health, substance misuse, and child protection crises have taken a significant toll on New Hampshire’s children and families, impacting all child-serving systems and placing increased pressure on the children’s behavioral health system. It is our obligation to address these problems head on, to ensure we are supporting the healthy social and emotional development of New Hampshire’s future citizens and leaders,” she said in a statement.