After delay, new commission overseeing DCYF to meet this month

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Published: 9/9/2017 10:26:58 PM

A new commission charged with overseeing the state’s child protective services division is up and running after a late start with its inaugural meeting planned for Sept. 19.

The 16-member Oversight Commission on Children’s Services and Juvenile Justice includes advocates, lawmakers, police chiefs, a circuit court judge and family law attorney. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Linda Dalianis made the final two appointments to the commission Wednesday.

By law, the commission should have been established and held its first meeting by mid-August; the law provided for a 45-day window once it took effect. However, the group will convene for the first time in less than two weeks, about one month behind schedule.

Despite the delay, lawmakers say the commission remains a top priority and will make its Nov. 1 deadline – the date by which it must file its first report to House leaders and the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

“Folks should follow very carefully the Office of the Child Advocate as it gets up and running. It has a very specific duty, and it’s something we haven’t ever done before,” said Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, a committee appointee who spearheaded the legislation.

The commission is charged with providing oversight to “support an effective, comprehensive and coordinated system of services and programs for children, youth and families,” according to the new law. Its first responsibility will be to recommend to Gov. Chris Sununu at least three qualified candidates for the director of the new office. The governor will make the final nomination, which requires Executive Council approval.

“I think there will be a very robust discussion about who we think will be a good fit to get this office off the ground,” Carson said. “We created something new, and we have to get the right person in there.”

Senate President Chuck Morse agreed, saying the state’s Department for Children, Youth and Families needs stronger management and oversight. He said he has heard too many horrifying stories of children kept in dangerous situations, including in homes where drug use is rampant.

Lawmakers focused on reforming DCYF after an independent review found that the agency has too few staff members to respond to a growing number of child maltreatment reports and rarely substantiates reports of abuse. The agency came under statewide scrutiny after 3-year-old Brielle Gage and 21-month-old Sadee Willott were killed by their mothers in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Agency records show DCYF had investigated multiple reports of abuse and neglect involving the girls before their deaths.

Commission appointees

The new commission includes four members appointed by the governor, two state representatives and two child advocates appointed by the Speaker of the House; two members of the Senate and two child advocates appointed by the Senate president; two members of the judicial branch appointed by the Supreme Court’s chief justice; and two police chiefs – one for a city and one for a town – appointed by the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.

“I think we have a good mix of people that really want to do the right thing in protecting the state’s most vulnerable children,” Carson said of the 16-member commission.

Morse appointed Carson as the first-named Senate member. He also appointed Sen. Bette Lasky, D-Nashua, as well as child advocates Nancy Rollins and Marcia Sink.

Rollins, who works for Easter Seals, previously led DCYF and was serving as director during the high-profile death of 21-month-old Kassidy Bortner. Chad Evans, the former live-in boyfriend of the toddler’s mother, Amanda Bortner, was convicted in 2002 of second-degree murder.

“Kassidy Bortner was an example that we can’t do quality work without additional staff,” Rollins told shortly after Evans’s conviction. “Clearly, we do the best we can, but we are constantly juggling priorities based on information coming in.”

Sink is the president and CEO of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of New Hampshire, which has six regional offices throughout the state and trains volunteers who serve on behalf of children as “guardians ad litem.” She has lobbied at the State House for blanket immunity from lawsuit for her staff in the context of an ongoing civil lawsuit filed against Easter Seals, CASA and DCYF. (The civil lawsuit was filed in Hillsborough County on behalf of the adoptive parents of two children who suffered sexual and physical abuse during visits with their biological parents in 2013.)

Sununu’s appointees to the commission also include those with experience in volunteer and advocacy work. His appointments are: former state Sen. David Boutin, who worked extensively on DCYF reforms as senator; Seacoast businesswoman Nancy Phillips; Joanne Ruel, an executive assistant in the Executive Council’s office; and Rep. Debra Altschiller, a Stratham Democrat who serves as a community liaison for the Seacoast crisis center HAVEN.

The governor’s office said Thursday that Phillips has more than 30 years experience in advocacy work, and previously served on CASA’s board of directors. She also co-founded “Kids and Company, Together for Safety,” a prevention education program serviced by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Ruel is a former guardian ad litem who has served as a volunteer mediator in the courts for decades.

Speaker of the House Shawn Jasper appointed Reps. Daniel Itse, a Fremont Republican and Skip Berrien, an Exeter Democrat; Keryn Bernard-Kriegl, executive director of New Hampshire Children’s Trust; and Joy Barrett, executive director of Granite State Children’s Alliance.

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Linda Dalianis appointed Circuit Court Judge Susan W. Ashley and Michelle E. Wangerin, an attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance’s Youth Law Project.

The police chiefs association appointed Chief Nick Willard of Manchester and Chief Robert Browne of Goffstown.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319.)

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