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Lawsuit says NH has ‘warehoused’ foster teens in group care

The Associated Press
Published: 1/5/2021 10:26:29 PM
Modified: 1/5/2021 10:26:20 PM

CONCORD — New Hampshire has “unnecessarily warehoused” foster care teens in institutional and group care facilities instead of with families and has not acted in their best interests, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed by several legal groups on Tuesday.

In the lawsuit against the state, plaintiffs allege that older youth under the custody of the Division for Children, Youth and Families are routinely denied placement in less restrictive foster home and family-based settings.

The lawsuit also alleges that the state denies older youths legal representation when placing them in restrictive group care settings and violates federal law by failing to adequately provide and implement critical case plans.

The suit said according to 2019 data that New Hampshire reported to the federal government, 70.3% of youths in DCYF care ages 14 through 17 were housed in congregate care facilities, compared with the national average of 31.2% for the age group.

The lawsuit said during fiscal year 2019, only 7.7% of New Hampshire’s older youths with a mental health diagnosis were placed in a family foster home, compared to 47.2% of the nation’s older youth with a diagnosis.

New Hampshire also moved older foster youths from placement to placement “with alarming frequency,” the lawsuit said. It seeks to remedy what it calls “structural failings.”

“The teenage years are difficult for many children, but they are exponentially more challenging for children who have been removed from their parents due to allegations of abuse or neglect,” said Karen Rosenberg, a senior staff attorney at the Disability Rights Center, in a statement Tuesday. “These teens need to feel connected to their families, friends, schools, and communities to navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood.”

Group home living, in contrast, “unlawfully deprives children in its care of the community-based services and family placements they need to grow into successful adults,” Rosenberg added.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for New Hampshire in Concord, aims to force the state to provide legal counsel to youth in the system; prioritize the least restrictive placement for each child; and strive for access to community-based services for those youth.

The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU of New Hampshire, the Disability Rights Center-NH, New Hampshire Legal Assistance, and national advocacy group Children’s Rights, and a law firm. It was filed against Gov. Chris Sununu; Health Commissioner Lori Shibinette; DCYF Director Joseph Ribsam; New Hampshire Medicaid Services Director Henry Lipman; and Administrative Office of the Courts Director Christopher Keating.

“While some states have issues they need to address, here in New Hampshire we have made more progressive reforms to our state’s child welfare system than any administration in history,” Sununu responded in a statement.

He noted that the number of children entering out-of-home care is down after doubling between 2015 and 2018; the creation of a program in 2018 to assist with identifying homes for children legally free for adoption; and adoption stipends to help parents who adopt older youth through age 21, among other initiatives.

Material from the Concord Monitor was used in this report.

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