A non-profit organization that trains volunteers to represent child victims in neglect and abuse cases is asking lawmakers to grant it immunity from civil and criminal liability.
Court Appointed Special Advocates of New Hampshire, or CASA-NH, trains and appoints more than 400 volunteers who act on behalf of children caught in district and family court proceedings. Under existing state law, individual CASA advocates are shielded them from lawsuits related to their official duties.
A bill in the Senate would extend that protection to the organization itself. CASA volunteers handle roughly 85 percent of child abuse and neglect cases in the state through a contract with the New Hampshire Judicial Council.
CASA staff attorney Betsy Paine told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday that the state’s opioid epidemic has put a strain on the organization’s resources. She said the threat of lawsuits could make it even harder for CASA to meet the demand for its services.
“At this point, about 69 percent of neglect cases come to us with some type of drug or opiate-related instigation,” she said. “It is really critical that we are able to recruit and train volunteers to meet this need.”
Manchester attorney David Eby, vice-chair of CASA’s board of directors, said the bill, SB 337, should be considered in light of a 2012 New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling that upheld the right to immunity for individual child advocates. He said SB 337 would clear up “uncertainty” around that decision and remove the threat of litigation.
“We need to be able to work cases without fear of being sued,” Eby said. “We need to protect our volunteers and our staff, all of whom work as essentially an extension of the court.”
The bill, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley at the request of CASA, follows on the heels of several highly publicized cases that focused attention on how the state handles child abuse and neglect allegations.
In January 2015, Katlyn Marin of Nashua was charged with murder in the death of her 3-year-old daughter, Brielle Gage. The state Division of Children, Youth and Families had removed the toddler from Marin’s home less than a year earlier, after she and her boyfriend were arrested for allegedly assaulting two other children.
And last fall, 21-month-old Sadie Willott died of blunt force trauma allegedly at the hands of her mother, Katlin Paquette. Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard lashed out at DCYF, saying the agency “failed” the child and didn’t immediately cooperate with the police investigation.
In response to those cases, the state has hired an outside contractor to conduct an independent review of DCYF’s ability to protect the children under its care.
Robert Clegg, a lobbyist for the New Hampshire Association for Justice, testified against the CASA immunity bill. He said the nonprofit should be held accountable for the actions of the volunteers it trains and supervises.
“If they, in fact, don’t train someone properly, shouldn’t they hold some kind of liability for the actions of that person?” he said. “That volunteer may have thought what they were doing was fine. But when what they did has a harmful effect on the child, who should take the responsibility for that?”
Clegg said the bill should be put on hold study pending oral arguments in a case involving CASA at the state Supreme Court in April. He said the court’s decision will likely clarify its 2012 ruling and decide whether or not CASA enjoys immunity under existing law.
“For the Legislature to now interfere and try to read into what they thought the court should have said or might have said or might have meant I think is the wrong step for the committee,” Clegg said.