N.H. Child Protection Failing

Associated Press
Published: 12/20/2016 12:42:21 AM
Modified: 12/20/2016 12:42:22 AM

Concord — The state’s child protection agency too often fails to help children who are at risk of being harmed, according to the results of an independent review released Monday.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan ordered the assessment of the Division for Children, Youth and Families following two high-profile toddler deaths, though consultants who studied the system didn’t delve into those cases. Instead, the consultants reviewed a random sampling of 232 cases and interviewed or surveyed hundreds of stakeholders.

In presenting the findings, Jerry Milner, Center for the Support of Families vice president, said the state does a good job when children have been hurt or are in immediate danger. But in many cases, allegations of neglect were deemed unfounded when children clearly were exposed to domestic violence or their parents’ substance abuse if the parents said they wouldn’t do it again or would seek treatment.

“Even in those situations where there was a very present, real risk of harm, in our opinion, to kids, we still saw the pattern of time after time, ‘unfounded, unfounded, unfounded,’ ” he said. “We disagree with that approach. We think if the incidents occur, whether intentional or not intentional, if the child has been exposed to an unreasonable amount of risk, the report ought to be founded.”

Among other problems, the report describes a seriously overloaded DCYF workforce, a restrictive child protection law that sets a high bar for determining neglect and a lack of services available to families.

The review sought to answer three questions: Does DCYF adequately respond to children and families entering its system? Does it adequately serve children already in the system? And is it organized in ways that support positive outcomes for children?

The answer was no on the first question, in large part because of the failure to adequately address the risk of future harm, the report concluded. Investigators who reviewed 182 cases involving families entering the system found that less than half received adequate responses.

On the second question, 40 of the 58 children whose cases were reviewed were deemed to have received adequate responses, though Milner said the number of cases was too small to draw larger conclusions.

The third question was not answered directly.

“In all three of those areas there’s room for improvement,” Milner said.

The report includes 20 recommendations, but Milner said increasing the number of social workers handling assessments was among the most critical. The report also recommends improved training, revised policies or laws to clarify that allegations should be deemed founded when evidence indicates a child is at risk of future harm and better collaboration with the medical, education and law enforcement fields.

Hassan, who recently won a bid for U.S. senator, and Jeffrey Meyers, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledged the report highlights the need for reform at DCYF. “The recommendations in this review are comprehensive, and it is evident that a great deal of work must be done to address them,” Meyers said.

He said the department is committed to working with the next governor, the Legislature and the judicial system to review the recommendations so the state’s child protection system “ensures the safety of children and families.”

The review was prompted by the deaths of 3-year-old Brielle Gage, who was beaten to death, and 21-month-old Sadence Willot, who suffered head injuries. The division had prior involvement with both families, and advocates have been demanding greater accountability and reform.

Republican Sen. David Boutin, who led a committee studying child fatalities, said he’s not convinced implementing the report’s recommendations will prevent tragedies.

“It’s great to do this and that, but oftentimes these incidents happen just like that,” he said. “By the time you do all you’re recommending, a child is dead.”

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