Following another child’s death, N.H. senators move to help beleaguered DCYF

  • State Sen. Jeb Bradley speaks on the Senate floor on March 31. AP file

Monitor staff
Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Exactly how many missed signals led to the deaths of a 6-year-old boy and his father in Derry last month – an apparent murder-suicide – could be unknowable.

But last Friday, weeks after the incident, the newly appointed watchdog over New Hampshire’s Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) said the agency had plenty of opportunities to intervene.

In a report, Moira O’Neill, the inaugural director of the state’s recently created Office of the Child Advocate, cited the agency’s inability to provide “voluntary services” to the family of the boy, Preston Edwards, ahead of the tragedy.

Now, following the Derry incident and years of reports of substandard response to abuse and neglect, senators in the State House are seeking action.

The Senate Health and Human Services committee voted unanimously Tuesday for a bill that would restore funding to those services – to the tune of $1.5 million.

Proposed by Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, Senate Bill 590 is wide-ranging, touching on numerous policy workers. But in adding funding for the services, Bradley said the bill presented an important step forward, particularly in the wake of Edwards’s death.

“To me this is one of the top priorities – we need to try to work the fund to help parents that need help on a voluntary basis,” he said.

In most states, services including counseling, child care and drug treatment are offered to those who don’t yet have documented abuse reports but have plenty of concern.

But with scant resources in New Hampshire, the bar is high to receive those services – after budget cuts, New Hampshire’s programs haven’t been funded for six years.

In Edwards’s situation, eight referrals were made to DCYF over two years ahead of his and his son’s death, but the details didn’t warrant a formal case, meaning the services were not available.

To O’Neill, funding the voluntary services is a crucial first step to turning the tide for the beleaguered agency. Coming to New Hampshire from a previous career overseeing child services in Connecticut, O’Neill was taken aback that New Hampshire didn’t have them, she said Tuesday.

For children in troubled homes, the availability of the voluntary services allows nascent problems to be dealt with before they escalate – a way to catch the problems “upstream,” she said. By giving worried family members the education and resources they need early on, O’Neill said, the family can work toward healthy habits. Without attentive care, a troublesome situation can take a turn, creating adverse experiences that the child can carry for years, she said.

“You really want to catch this stuff early and make sure that children aren’t exposed to so much stress,” she said.

Still, O’Neill said, while the funds are a strong boost, they aren’t the end-all solution. A staffing increase is still sorely needed, and while the 20 new positions created by the Legislature last year have been technically filled, according to DCYF Director Joe Ribsam, the lengthy training period and high turnover mean the agency still struggles.

In its present situation, DCYF doesn’t have the staffing to actually carry out the voluntary services, even if the money is approved, O’Neill said. The agency plans to use the help of local family service organizations if the appropriation passes, she added.

SB 590, which includes a medley of additional provisions related to DCYF, will now go to the Senate floor, and to the Senate Finance Committee if it passes the full chamber.

It joins another bill passed by the Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday – Senate Bill 582 – which would set aside money for the hiring of 15 additional child protection social workers.

But despite bipartisan approval, the Senate’s history of funding voluntary services is spotty. Last year, Republican senators voted down Democratic attempts to add funding into the budget, along party lines.

Edwards’s death – and O’Neill’s report last week – may spur more support, but tight fiscal realities of the off-budget-year timing could pose hurdles.

Still, Bradley said he was optimistic.

“I think people realize that this is something that’s important,” he said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)