My Turn: Child protection today and tomorrow

For the Monitor
Monday, December 04, 2017

With a myriad of political disruptions and global uncertainty portrayed in the media, it can be difficult to see what is going right. I want to report that there is a lot going right to help New Hampshire children be safe.

When I entered the Legislature in 2015 there had been two unfortunate deaths of young children at the hands of their caregivers. This captured the attention of many throughout the state, creating a cascade of actions that have resulted in significant improvements.

At the behest of then-senator David Boutin, a commission was created in 2015 that identified and corrected problems related to the interaction of law enforcement and child protection systems. This commission recommended creation of an Office of Child Advocate, which is on the verge of being implemented. Legislation also created a category of active cases in the Division of Children, Youth and Families where children remain in the custody of their parents while DCYF maintains oversight. The Legislature further advanced legislation that permits DCYF to start working with families involved with opioids before a child is hurt or neglected.

In the beginning of 2016, then-governor Maggie Hassan appointed Jeffrey Meyers as commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services and ordered an independent study of the investigation procedures of DCYF. Meyers worked with the legislative commission throughout 2016 to address a number of the most outstanding issues involving DCYF. This included expanded access to technology and creation of a 24/7 intake and response capability. In December 2016, the independent study made 20 major recommendations, all of which are being addressed.

Starting in 2017 there were major changes in DCYF leadership. Christine Tappan was brought on board as an associate DHHS commissioner. She has broad national experience in child protection and assumed complete oversight of DCYF pending the recruitment of a new DCYF director. Tappan’s national perspective has permitted her to bring a systems approach to the protection of New Hampshire’s children while implementing necessary changes within the agency. In the past month, attorney Joe Ribsam, formerly a deputy director of child protection services in New Jersey, has assumed the position of DCYF director.

The work undertaken by the staff at DCYF is complex, intense and emotionally laden. Despite all of the good intentions of staff and leadership, disturbing incidents and setbacks are inevitable. Hopefully these will become the opportunity for us all to learn how we make New Hampshire an even safer place for children.

At this time, there is a lot of optimism within the child protection community. But there remains a large amount of work for all to do to be sure that these initiatives translate into improved protection for all of our children. Recruiting qualified staff to fill newly created positions has been a huge challenge. Closing the backlog of cases continues to be a major hurdle as new cases demand immediate attention. The Legislature has a responsibility to find funds to expand treatment for families in need. The overstretched foster family network is in need of more support and resources. And the opioid epidemic spins out of control, creating more children at risk of abuse or neglect.

New Hampshire has an amazing array of services designed to address the safety of children, including family resource centers, home visiting, employment security, N.H. Children’s Trust, N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Spark N.H. and many more. However, while working well within their defined sphere, these services find it difficult to collaborate in a manner that addresses the needs of families in a truly comprehensive way. Families and children do not exist in isolation nor should the services that serve them. A system is needed to permit service collaboration to comprehensively meet the needs of families.

Associate Commissioner Tappan has described the process needed for creating a strong child protection system as “transformational.” And to accomplish this transformation she points out that we need a major effort to go upstream to prevent children from falling into the river of abuse and neglect. No one wants their child to be abused or neglected. To prevent this from happening parents need resources and support for themselves and their families. As a state, as a community and as individuals, we have a responsibility to ensure that parents have what they need to successfully raise and nurture children. All children in New Hampshire are our children.

(Rep. Skip Berrien of Exeter serves on the House Children and Family Law Committee, Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities and the Oversight Commission for Children’s Services.)