Infant deaths prompt DCYF review by state child advocate 

  • An infant grasps volunteer Kathleen Jones' hand in the neonatal intensive care unit at the University of Chicago's Comer Children's Hospital in Chicago on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Jones, 52, is one of several people who volunteer to cuddle babies at the hospital. Research shows that cuddling helps calm the babies, many who are born prematurely or who have serious health issues, and aids in their early development. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine) Martha Irvine

Monitor staff
Published: 3/26/2019 4:17:03 PM

The state’s child advocate has opened a review into the Division for Children, Youth and Families’ response to babies born exposed to drugs after several children died after the agency opened investigations into the families.

Director of the Office of the Child Advocate Moira O’Neill said a full report on DCYF’s handling of babies born exposed to drugs is expected to be released in July 2019.

In her preliminary report Tuesday, O’Neill said five children – the oldest being 23 months old – who were born exposed to drugs in 2018 and 2019 died after being in contact with DCYF. An additional 11 children were either victims of a serious injury, a parent death, or another traumatic event after being in contact with the agency.

“The OCA has received complaints alleging action or safety plans for children born substance exposed were insufficient to ensure child safety,” O’Neill wrote in the report. “The OCA has received concerns ... that such plans frequently are not followed by families, or are not meaningfully monitored by DCYF.”

By law, New Hampshire health providers are required to report cases of children born exposed to drugs to DCYF.

The agency is then required to perform a minimum of four face-to-face visits within 60 days and to develop a long-term safety plan for the care of the child. DCYF must also provide referrals to community services and ensure parental participation in substance use treatment.

However, in each of those five cases involving the death of a child, DCYF opened assessments and later closed them as unfounded. There were no additional follow-ups afterward, O’Neill said.

O’Neill said this may be due to a problem of caseload volume, available medical or nursing expertise, or inadequate resources. She said future reports will examine these issues and look for solutions.

“We need to understand if we are seeing a trend among at-risk infants and whether our child welfare and public health systems have the resources they need to address it,” O’Neill said in a press release.

While DCYF has added staff to decrease caseloads, a closer look at how the agency handles these types of cases could be beneficial, O’Neill said.

“A result may be that home visiting needs to be extended to make sure families are on the right foot and to make sure the child is as healthy can be,” she said to the Monitor later in a phone interview.

O’Neill said two of the five children died of sudden infant death syndrome – something future research would also address.

“Are these children at a higher risk?” she said. “That’s a basic public health question.”

In 2018, 466 children born exposed to drugs were involved in DCYF abuse/neglect assessments. In 2017, 508 children were accepted by DCYF for assessment.

Concord Hospital treated 97 babies exposed to substances in 2018. So far this year, the hospital has treated 17 babies, according to Erin Collins, director of the hospital’s maternity department.

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