New Hampshire Public Defenders to provide legal advice on youth assessment process 

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 08-03-2023 4:34 PM

Before any charges are filed against a child in New Hampshire in juvenile court, parents and children are asked the same question each time: Would you like to participate in the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths assessment? 

Most need a little explanation before they decide. The questionnaire allows youth to share more of their story – anything from family history with substance abuse to hobbies outside of school. And often times, the detailed narrative the assessment provides can be the deciding factor in whether a child goes to court or is diverted away from the justice system.

Most families choose to participate. About a quarter decline.

The assessment is an entirely voluntary tool that has been introduced in the New Hampshire juvenile justice system in recent years. It’s a way for the many sectors that touch the juvenile justice system to speak the same language and individualize plans for the children involved. But often, when a probation officer calls a family recommending they participate in a detailed, personal assessment that will be added  to their child’s case file, concerns and hesitations arise. 

Starting last month, the state Public Defender’s office started assisting families with the assessments as they move their way through the legal process with their child. On July 1, a two-year, $100,000 contract approved by the Executive Council went into effect to provide legal counsel for youth in the juvenile justice assessment process. 

The goal of these assessments and advice? Keep kids who don’t need to be in court, out. 

“The trauma starts as soon as they even have to step foot in the courtroom,” said Pamela Jones, a managing attorney at the New Hampshire Public Defenders. “If we can figure out what kids don't need to go there and shouldn't be there, then that's what we should be doing.”

Since introducing the universal assessment tool in October of 2021, state data shows that 72 percent of the time, the assessment recommends a community referral for the child, instead of court involvement. 

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These community referrals include participation in community services, like the Boys and Girls Club or YMCA, mental health counseling, a diversion program or an at-home program through the Bureau of Children’s Behavioral Health like FAST Forward. 

These external options mean that children often can access resources they need, without having to go through the court system. Particularly for first-time offenders, kids who never had previous interactions with the justice system and simply made a mistake, it can be a make-or-break alternative. 

Now, the New Hampshire Public Defender’s attorneys can help explain the varying outcomes of participating or not and more about how the assessment will be used. 

“Kids, parents are often skeptical of the system, especially if they've had any involvement, which oftentimes they have,” said Jones.  

Legislative efforts in 2022 changed the court process so that families could opt to participate in the assessment after arriving in court and receiving a defense attorney. Now, Jones hopes that New Hampshire Public Defender guidance will help clarify the process before they arrive in the courthouse. 

Oftentimes, a lack of information or fear that the assessment would backfire on them, bringing additional charges (which does not happen), were inherent barriers to participating, according to Jones. 

“I think there's a lack of understanding that this process could lead to you not going to court at all,” she said. “Because that gets kind of muddy because they don't fully understand those things. Those are the reasons why people are declining, whether it be a youth or a parent.”

The New Hampshire Public Defender solely provides legal counsel to youth clients, however, both the parent and child have to consent to the assessment process. A report from the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 100 children, ages 12-17, will be helped annually with this funding. 

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