Sununu to sign child protection, mental health bills

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu has signaled his willingness to sign legislation passed by bipartisan majorities that increases funding for child protection and mental health above what he originally proposed.

A consensus is emerging that will likely see funding for additional positions at the Division for Children, Youth and Families, as called for in Senate Bill 6, and reforms to the mental health system for children described in Senate Bill 14.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have been moving down a path that diverged from the direction outlined by Sununu in his budget address, but the governor struck a collaborative tone in a May 13 letter to House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, and Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester.

“Senate Bills 6 and 14 build upon the progress we have made with child welfare reform over the past two years. I look forward to signing these important pieces of legislation when they reach my desk,” writes Sununu.

Senate Bill 6 passed the Senate, 23-0, in February, and last week cleared the House on voice vote after a 16-0 endorsement from the House Children and Family Law Committee.

It funds 77 new positions in the Division for Children, Youth and Families over two years at a cost of $8.6 million, consisting of 57 new child protective service workers (CPSW) and 20 new supervisors.

The 57 new case workers represent a 44 percent increase over the current staffing at DCYF, which has 129 existing protective service worker positions.

Sununu’s version of the state budget would authorize 62 new DCYF positions, but pay for only 26. More could be funded as the agency fills its current openings and the 26 new positions.

“We approach addressing this issue in a different way, most notably with the number of additional caseworkers for DCYF,” Sununu states.

“While we agree that there is a need to increase the number of workers who are at the forefront of investigating allegations of child abuse, my concern continues to be that the Department of Health and Human Services may not be able to fill those positions in a timely manner.”

Sununu says he has, however, been assured by senior managers at DCYF that “hiring rates have improved over the past several months and, despite initial reservations, they are comfortable moving forward to fill the additional positions contained in SB 6.”

If DCYF can’t fill the 77 new positions and 30 existing vacancies, Sununu said he will work to repurpose the funding to fill other critical positions.

“This will ensure the money appropriated to DCYF is used in a timely and effective manner to protect New Hampshire children,” he said.

Senate Bill 14, which invests $18 million over the next two years to reform the state’s mental health services for children, passed in the House on a voice vote Wednesday and cleared the Senate unanimously in March.

Its provisions include an estimated $4.5 million to create a mobile crisis unit for children, with a group of practitioners who can be deployed on short notice for emergency mental health evaluations.

The bill also requires the Department of Health and Human Services to expand and streamline home and community-based behavioral health services for children in a variety of ways.

Sununu said he has long supported the goals of SB 14, including creation of the first statewide children’s mobile crisis response team.

He urged lawmakers to include the funds for both bills in their final version of the state budget, due to the governor by the end of June.

“It is important that these bills be properly accounted for,” he wrote, “as they will have passed outside of the traditional budget process.”

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