My Turn: Bill is an investment in the welfare of children

For the Monitor
Published: 5/8/2019 12:20:22 AM

The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children. – Nelson Mandela

As New Hampshire citizens, it is our obligation to steward the next generation of New Hampshire residents and community leaders, and invest in our children. Sound investments in our community’s future require that all children have the opportunity to develop academically, socially and emotionally. Ensuring child welfare now is crucial to building a healthy state in the future, and it’s the right thing to do.

There are many children in New Hampshire who are not getting what they need to grow into healthy adults. Children need environments free of toxic stress, like abuse and neglect, to grow up strong and healthy. In order to support healthy children, we need to ensure that our state child welfare department – the Division for Children, Youth and Families – has what it needs to effectively protect our children.

We are not blind to the issues within DCYF. The tragic deaths of multiple children in New Hampshire cannot be overlooked. As a state, we need to ensure DCYF reform and prevent situations like this from ever happening in the future.

In July 2018, an independent agency completed a New Hampshire Adequacy and Enhancement Assessment of DCYF to provide important and well-researched recommendations for system transformation.

Senate Bill 14, which has a vote coming up in the New Hampshire House of Representatives this week, puts into place many of the recommendations to build a stronger child welfare system in New Hampshire. In order to begin to solve the problems within DCYF, we need to both add more DCYF staff and pass SB 14.

SB 14 takes a systemic approach to child welfare reform and ensures children and youth get the appropriate support services where and when they need them, using a System of Care framework. The recommendation is to build a highly effective continuum of services and supports that is aligned to meet the needs of New Hampshire’s children and their families. Research shows that the System of Care approach is a smart investment that brings better outcomes for children and youth, as well as their families and communities.

In 2016, New Hampshire passed a System of Care law for children’s behavioral health. The law (135-f) requires the state to develop and maintain an integrated and comprehensive service delivery system for children with behavioral health needs.

SB 14 takes a step forward with the System of Care law by further integrating the child welfare system with the children’s behavioral health System of Care, as recommended in the 2018 Adequacy and Enhancement Assessment. All of our children, including children with behavioral health needs, should be able to access services when and where they need them.

One example of a crucial service that will be implemented with the passage of SB 14 is mobile crisis response and stabilization for all children. This service provides acute mental health treatment to children where and when they need it. The goal is to provide rapid response, assess the child or youth, resolve crisis situations, and link children, youth and families with needed services. This service is cost-effective compared to treating children in more expensive settings and can reduce the need for other costly services.

Mobile crisis does not currently exist in New Hampshire for children in any intentional way, leaving children and families without access to services when they need them, particularly during a crisis. In many cases, a family’s only options during a behavioral health crisis are to turn to law enforcement or an emergency department, neither of which can provide appropriate and trauma-informed behavioral health care for kids in crisis. Although well-meaning, emergency rooms and police departments often lack the specialized expertise and training to effectively respond to a child’s unique psychiatric needs, as well as the time and infrastructure to appropriately address the needs of individuals experiencing psychiatric or substance abuse crises.

SB 14 is all about prevention. It prevents child abuse and neglect by supporting families when they need it most. It prevents children’s deep-end and often expensive involvement in the child welfare system. It prevents further trauma to children with behavioral health needs by giving them appropriate supports at the right time

If we want to protect our most vulnerable and build a healthy and economically strong future for all of New Hampshire’s children, we need to pass SB 14.

(Becky Whitley is the policy director for the New Hampshire Children’s Behavioral Health Collaborative.)

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