Concord — It’s almost impossible for the public to get information about what the state does or how judges rule in child abuse and neglect proceedings. The records are all kept confidential. Even talking about what happens inside the hearing can result in a misdemeanor charge.
The state laws are meant to protect the identities of children and parents involved in some of the most sensitive court proceedings. Some argue the rules have gone too far, and now shield the public from ever learning about problems within the state’s child protection division, even in cases when a child dies.
“A system like this can continue to fester and allow for the harm of children, if they are allowed to operate in secret. And that’s the way it’s been for decades,” said Bedford attorney Rus Rilee, who is representing several families who are suing, or plan to sue, the state’s Division of Children, Youth and Families.
Rilee is fighting to have his cases heard in open court, by challenging the constitutionality of the laws that keep child abuse and neglect records secret. He said children’s privacy can be protected even if documents from abuse and neglect proceedings are made public. The state attorney general’s office disagrees, but a push for transparency is still moving ahead.
The Legislature is weighing whether to create an office of the child advocate to independently oversee the child protection agency. The advocate would have subpoena power, the ability to evaluate DCYF decisions and the freedom to tell the public when child protection got things wrong, or, just as importantly, right.
“It’s going to make things more open and transparent,” said Republican Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican who is sponsoring the bill. “If people have concerns about what DCYF is doing, they now have an outside agency they can go to who is actually going to do an investigation.”
Reviews do take place, but the process and results are mostly kept secret. The New Hampshire Child Fatality Review Committee looks at all child deaths, whether they are related to abuse and neglect, or car crashes and bike accidents. When discussing the details of a child’s death, however, the group meets behind closed doors.
DCYF won’t say whether it reviewed its role leading up to Brielle Gage’s death. The toddler was under agency watch when she was beaten to death by her mother in 2014. Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers declined to talk specifics, but said “the agency obviously does reviews periodically to make sure it’s using best practices.”
Brielle’s paternal father, William Boucher, is one of Rilee’s clients and plans to sue DCYF over its handling of his daughter’s case. He wants the case heard in open court to try and bring change to the system.
“They should be accountable,” Boucher said. "All these families are in turmoil and all these kids keep dying because no one can stop what is going on.”
Boucher was in jail, filing parenting petitions, when Brielle was killed. He had called his new girlfriend that day, who through sobs and gasps, told him over the phone his daughter was dead.
“I put a lot of blame on myself. I don’t know,” Boucher said recently, wiping away tears from beneath his thin-square glasses. He had no idea DCYF was investigating allegations of abuse against Brielle because the agency never alerted him, he said.
Under the child protection laws, records from abuse and neglect proceedings must be kept in “books and files separate from all other court records” and must be withheld from “public inspection.” They are only accessible to a child’s grandparents or guardians with approval. The confidentiality also shields judges’ decisions in abuse and neglect proceedings from public view, making it hard to tell why cases may be dismissed.
Rilee has yet to argue his case. The attorney general’s office says it’s important to preserve confidentiality of abuse and neglect records to protect children’s personal information and adults who may be wrongly accused. The protections encourage families to be open and honest about their history and the public to report any suspected abuse and neglect, Senior Assistant Attorney General Lisa English wrote in a statement.
“If the information were not confidential, it would have a chilling effect on individual’s willingness to provide information to DCYF,” English said. “The protection of children is paramount, and the confidentiality provisions in these statutes exist to further that purpose.”