Pandemic has made child protection even harder

Monitor staff
Published: 11/28/2020 7:57:15 PM
Modified: 11/28/2020 7:57:04 PM

An annual report from the watchdog office over New Hampshire’s Division for Children, Youth and Families makes one thing clear: the COVID-19 pandemic is making it harder to help abused and neglected children.

With schools closed, children have fewer contact with professionals who must become mandated reporters in the face of signs of abuse.

“When abuse and neglect referrals dropped precipitously, the OCA used its platform to help prompt community conversations and raise awareness of the children next door,” OCA Director Moira O’Neill wrote in the introduction to the 28-page report, released earlier this month. “When infection spread in congregate settings among older New Hampshire residents, the OCA reminded DCYF that children too, are at heightened risk in congregate settings.”

And new pandemic restraints have caused the state’s hospitals to see “historic numbers” of children in line for acute psychiatric services this fall, the report stated.

The pandemic may have also contributed to a reduction in the number of children in residential care, from 341 in December 2019 to 308 in September 2020, the OCA report said. Part of that was at the urging of the OCA, which required juvenile probation and parole officers and child protective service workers to screen children individually at the start of the pandemic and determine who was at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 and who could be safely discharged.

The office has also pressed for consideration of the coronavirus in placement decisions around children, its report stated.

Meanwhile, the report noted gradual changes at DCYF, in the years since funding cuts led it to fall far behind in case workload.

Among the journeys for DCYF in recent years has been “shifting from the appearance of a punitive to a family-supportive agency,” wrote O’Neill in the OCA’s report.

Still, the agency still is falling short in key areas, the report warned. A series of contracts laid out in Senate Bill 6 and 14, both of which passed in mid-2019, are only just now getting filled and approved, the OCA noted.

That applies as much to the agency’s involvement with families as for its involvement with the criminal justice system. In its 13 child case reviews conducted over the last year – all of which involved institutionalized children – the watchdog found that “a punitive approach in the juvenile justice system lingers.”

Created in 2018, the Office of the Child Advocate has taken on an increasingly outsized role this year.

The office is processing an unprecedented number of incidents – reported problems involving children under state supervision – sent over from DCYF this year. That’s due to a new requirement that the state Department of Health and Human Services report them to the watchdog.

Between Oct. 1, 2019 and Sept. 30, 2020, the OCA processed 2,183 incidents, the office said in its report, triple what it did the year before. It also received 311 complaints from concerned residents sent directly to the watchdog, the vast majority from parents or guardians.

Many of the complaints related to child welfare concerns, with the greatest number of those dealing with abuse and neglect.

“The significance of this reporting is a new capacity to see the breadth of the problem of children enduring injuries, restraints, or going missing,” O’Neill said. “With this data we can start to delve into ways of preventing incidents and better respond to children’s needs.”

And beyond the higher incident volume, the OCA is also preparing to take on a much broader oversight responsibility. A law that went into effect in September expanded the OCA’s authority over not just DCYF but every state agency in the state, allowing it to capture information far ahead of the child’s involvement with DCYF, such as in school.

The authority will allow the office to intervene into specific DCYF cases in a more effective way, O’Neill said.

That bill, House Bill 1162, also included a number of expansions to child protection law, including one major conceptual change: putting the child’s interests first. Now, everything the state does with respect to child protection – particularly around family separations – must be formally done “in the best interest of the child.”

O’Neill said that that legal change and others will help push the agency and the rest of the state toward becoming ever more proactive in tackling the cases.

“It’s now just a matter of implementation,” O’Neill wrote.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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