Lawmakers Plan Response to Report Claiming State Falls Short on Child Abuse Protections

Dec 21, 2016

Brielle Gage died of blunt-force injuries in 2014 shortly after the state placed the child in the care of her mother, who was facing child abuse charges at the time.
Credit File photo

An independent report on New Hampshire’s Division of Children, Youth and Families says the state falls short of its obligation to protect abused and neglected children.

The report puts the responsibility for fixing that broken system – and protecting New Hampshire’s most vulnerable residents – in the hands of lawmakers. 

  The report’s conclusions were sweeping and blunt. It found the Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) doesn’t have the money, staff or legal authority to protect children who are abused and neglected.

Click here to read the full report.

This isn't news to Democratic State Rep Lucy Weber, who chairs the Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities.

"The problem has been created over time because we have over time starved that agency of resources that it used to have. And at the same time we have also been experiencing – mostly due to the opioid crisis – experiencing much greater need for the sorts of services that DCYF provides," Weber says.

Here’s the big picture: The report found social workers are burning out left and right, largely because their caseloads are more than they can handle. Meanwhile, DCYF is facing a growing number of lawsuits for not protecting children who died or who were sexually abused while under state supervision.

While presenting the findings this week, the report’s author said, “We’re talking life and death of children.”

DCYF is housed under the state’s largest agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. Republican State Senator Sharon Carson says that department is simply too big a bureaucracy and DCYF has no direct line to state policymakers.

"They need to have their own advocate. They had this huge deficit in the number of people that they had and they needed more people but no one ever came to the legislature and asked for those positions."

Carson has sponsored a bill that would change that, making DCYF its own agency with its own commissioner.

"They would have been able to contact us directly and say, look, we have a problem, we don’t have enough people, our work load is increasing – we, we, we just need help." 

Another problem the report highlights goes deeper than just the staff on the job. State law doesn’t give DCYF staff enough authority to take children out of dangerous situations.

Representative Weber says the law walks a tightrope between keeping families together and pulling kids away when they need to be protected from their families.

The statute as it now stands is balanced more heavily towards the preservation of family and is therefore less weighted towards the safety of children.

"So that means the legislature would need to change the law to make it easier to take certain kids away from family members – sometimes permanently."

Underlying all of this is money. Today, the Executive Council approved a $610,000 contract for an outside company to take calls relating to abuse after hours. That means soon, the state will soon have a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hotline to report child abuse.

But the legislature also needs to find the money to ease the workloads of existing social workers, to hire more social workers, and to better train and retain social workers on the job.

Steven Shurtleff is the Democratic leader in the house.

"Unfortunately I think a lot of times state employees have to do things quickly instead of maybe giving it the time you really need. It’s better to take the extra time and do it in a more appropriate manner than to, you know, shortchange the children."

Shurtleff says he approves of an idea floated by Republican House Speaker Shawn Jasper to quickly create a committee to examine the report’s findings and start changing laws and moving around money.

Republicans will control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office starting in January, and so they’ll hold the pen when a new two-year budget is written. Only then will it be clear exactly how much of a priority fixing DCYF is to lawmakers.