Commission to keep picks for DCYF oversight director private

Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A commission tasked with choosing candidates for a watchdog position over the Division for Children, Youth and Families will not make its recommendations public, its members decided Tuesday.

At a meeting to determine the selection process, members of the Oversight Commission on Children’s Services determined that publicly releasing candidates’ names would be an unfair breach of privacy ahead of a final choice by the governor.

Established last session by the House budget trailer bill, the commission is charged with recommending at least three candidates to the governor to lead the new oversight office.

DCYF has come under harsh scrutiny following a pair of high-profile cases in which children under the agency’s supervision – 3-year-old Brielle Gage and 21-month-old Sadee Willott – were killed by their mothers. Last December, an independent review found that the agency had too few staff members to respond to a growing number of child maltreatment reports and that it rarely substantiated reports of abuse.

Following public outcry, the Legislature created the Office of the Child Advocate as an independent check on the agency. With the ability to subpoena witnesses, review case records and investigate policies at the request of the governor or legislators, the role carries power. The commission was created as a permanent body to oversee the office and help appoint its director after each four-year term.

A subcommittee of the commission has already narrowed down a field of 20 candidates to five; the full commission now intends to interview those five next month and reduce the selection to three.

Under the plan decided Tuesday, the body will send those three names to Gov. Chris Sununu confidentially. Sununu may then make his own recommendation to the Executive Council, though he is not bound to follow the list of nominees.

Not everyone present agreed with the move. Rep. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, said that declining to release the final list of names would cede the public decision-making to the governor and reduce the commission’s capacity to challenge his decision.

“We are here doing the people’s business,” Altschiller said. “We are hiring the director of the Office of the Child Advocate, who will be responsible for all of the children, and all of the programming. And I think that we should be transparent in that.”

Manchester police Chief Nick Willard also registered his opposition. He declined to comment further after the meeting.

Other members – including Vice Chairman David Boutin – said the move was necessary to respect privacy considerations. Some pointed out that the ultimate test of public scrutiny could come before the Executive Council, when the governor’s final pick must face a public hearing.

“I think it goes beyond prejudicing anyone (who doesn’t get the position),” Boutin said. “It has to do with the privacy of the candidates.”

He said the decision had been recommended by the Senate legal counsel and the Department of Administrative Services, which traditionally oversees the hiring of state employees.

The group will meet next to interview all five candidates on Dec. 12; it will reconvene Dec. 19 to examine references and vote on a decision.

Both meetings will be closed to the public and press, Boutin said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)