N.H. child advocate office could get more authority under bill

  • Moira O’Neill, director of the Office of the Child Advocate. A bill in the State House is looking to expand the office’s information-sharing powers. Courtesy

Associated Press
Published: 4/22/2018 10:12:49 PM

A proposal to strengthen New Hampshire’s new office of the child advocate has the support of the division it monitors, though the governor is reserving judgment for now.

Lawmakers created the watchdog agency as part of larger effort to reform the Division for Children, Youth and Families, which has been under scrutiny since two toddlers under its supervision were killed in 2014 and 2015. A legislative committee last week unanimously backed an amended bill to expand the office’s reach and ability to share information.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu is closely monitoring the bill, a spokesman said. Meanwhile, the state Department of Health and Human Services and DCYF support it.

“The Legislature established the Office of the Child Advocate to help ensure children in New Hampshire are protected from abuse and neglect. The proposed changes to the child advocate statute will enable the Office to better meet that mission,” said DHHS spokesman Jake Leon.

Currently, only a handful of people, including the governor and top lawmakers, are authorized to initiate investigations by the office. The proposed changes would allow anyone with an issue with child protection services to bring a complaint, including children, parents and foster parents, the office’s director, Moira O’Neill, told the House Child and Family Law Committee.

“It opens up access to the office to all citizens of New Hampshire,” she said. “We wouldn’t deny those calls, anyhow, but having them in statute makes it a little more efficient.”

The bill also would give the office authority to communicate with teachers, health care providers and others who care for children, in order to prevent or stop abuse and neglect or enhance treatment.

“The Office of the Child Advocate has enormous powers to access information, but without the ability to share that information when it’s necessary, the whole purpose of the office is sort of moot,” she said.

Under the bill, O’Neill’s office also would be able to share some information with the public in limited circumstances. Under current law, only the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services is authorized to release such information. Last month, the commissioner gave O’Neill permission to comment on a case in Derry involving a man who killed himself and his 6-year-old son by carbon monoxide poisoning, but the commissioner was uncomfortable doing so, O’Neill said.

O’Neill is planning a full review of the boy’s death, saying his father might not have killed him had he been able to get more help. Matthew Edmunds repeatedly asked DCYF for help but the state no longer offers support for families deemed only at risk for abuse or neglect.

“It was very clear to us that it was important that the public knew there was a breakdown in the system that might have prevented that child’s death,” she said.

The changes are included in amendment to a bill that already has passed the Senate.

Keith Kuennig of New Hampshire Child and Family Services said the amendment is “absolutely necessary.”

“The whole point of the child advocate is to bring forward the issues we were having throughout the system,” he said. “If she is the only one who knows the information, how does that help the Legislature? How does this help the public? How does that help the children?”

Rep. Dan Itse, R-Fremont, agreed.

“Creating it in the first place and strengthening it is a very good thing,” he said

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