NH Juvenile Justice: A new foundation for child services

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 06-06-2023 10:03 AM

In Joe Ribsam’s first year working in New Hampshire, following legislation in the State House was practically a full-time job.

Ribsam, the new head of the Division for Children, Youth and Families, found himself reiterating requests for funds and defending new proposals almost daily before the state’s 424-member citizen legislature where every bill gets its own hearing.

“A lot of people had their own ideas about what to do with fixing systems. They all had all these different bills. There was something like eighty-some-odd hearings within my first few months here,” he said. “It was overwhelming.”

But rightfully so, he said. Ribsam’s tenure began on the heels of the deaths of 3-year-old Brielle Gage and 21-month-old Sadee Willott – two young girls who were killed by their mothers, despite prior warning signs of abuse at home that child protection workers knew about.

It was also during this time that funding cuts and staffing shortages had limited the protective services for New Hampshire’s youth who were often most in need.

Under Ribsam’s tenure, the state built out a division for behavioral health, specifically focused on children. Numbers at the Sununu Youth Services Center began to drop as more children were given action plans to improve their lives rather than be locked up in a juvenile prison.

After five whirlwind years as the head of DCYF, Ribsam left the position this month to join the Annie E. Casey Foundation as its director of child welfare and juvenile justice policy. His new position builds off the system he left in place in New Hampshire to protect youth, with an emphasis on addressing mental health and therapeutic care.

But with constant competition for funds within the state Department of Health and Human Services and personnel shortages that plague service providers, providing these services comes with a consistent challenge – failure to do the job can lead to the death of a child.

Hardly a system in place

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Building a children’s division of the department was one of Ribsam’s first priorities when he was hired in 2017.

It seemed like an odd move at the time as public rhetoric focused on the immediate need for child protection services. But Ribsam knew if the state expanded access to mental health and substance abuse treatment for youth, inherently the welfare department would make contact with families before cases reached the apex of abuse and neglect, or involvement with the justice system.

“You had a service system for kids and families that hadn’t really been updated in a good decade, even though the world had changed around how you work with families,” he said.

This stagnation, he said was largely driven by funding cuts.

Following the Great Recession in 2008, the idea across the board in the legislature was to cap spending for public services in New Hampshire to balance the state budget.

But in doing so, some services were cut, while a constant demand remained.

“What we ended up doing instead was creating this overwhelming need that couldn’t be met, and expecting a diminished workforce of child protection workers and juvenile justice staff to be able to somehow put the pieces together,” said Ribsam. “It just didn’t work.”

At the time, case workers in the child protection division carried loads of 50 to 60 cases. Nationally, the standard is to focus on a dozen clients at a time.

In order to get services through the state back then, children and families first needed to be referred to DCYF for cases of abuse or neglect, Ribsam said.

Essentially, it was hard for the state to work with families voluntarily.

“Typically, by the time we get to that point, you’re really thinking about removing a child from their family,” he said. “It’s way, way too late.”

Through Children’s Behavorial Health programs, the state is now able to connect youth and parents with resources earlier.

Often, kids who are involved with juvenile justice or child protection could not only have their needs met elsewhere, but access to care sooner through behavioral health services could make all the difference.

“It was just a critical, critical piece of the puzzle in order to get the rest of the system where it needs to go,” he said.

Diversion programs

Don’t get it wrong, Nicole Rodler is happy to see improvements in the state’s juvenile justice system.

But for someone who has worked with the New Hampshire Juvenile Court Diversion Network, essentially referring kids to community-based support instead of juvenile court, it’s about time the state reframed its work with youth in the state.

“We were doing diversion since 1980,” she said. “All of a sudden, [state officials] realized this is something that we should probably look at on a state level.”

For many children who end up with juvenile criminal cases, a long history of personal trauma can often be the root cause.

With diversion, the goal is to help the child understand the consequences of their case. Solutions are often rooted in community involvement, as opposed to punitive measures.

“You look at that kid in a 360,” said Rodler. “It’s a true restorative practice.”

When state leaders began to overhaul the juvenile justice system in 2019 and introduce an assessment process to create individualized probation rules, participating in a diversion program became a common suggestion.

“Our programs have done their thing. Juvenile justice probation officers have done their thing. We’ve been working in tandem towards ultimately the same goal of helping kids be safe and healthy, but in very different ways,” said Alissa Cannon, who is the executive director of the Diversion Network.

Now the state’s 18 diversion programs, each of which operates independently, are seeing an influx of cases. This year, the network is on track to close 500 cases, according to Cannon.

Historically, the Diversion Network has relied on creative avenues to fund their work. But with this new focus on assessments and finding alternative resources for children outside of juvenile court or detention, Rodler and Cannon would like to see state funding come with it.

“Our programs have been operating on fundraisers, on finding board members who can grant write for them and charitable gaming dollars like everywhere that they can possibly find money to be able to operate and provide the services that are mandated by the state now.”

Roadmap ahead

For years families in New Hampshire avoided contact with the Division of Children, Youth and Families in fear that engaging with the state system would mean the removal of children from their home.

Now that services through the Children’s Behavioral Health department are available, it means that families can voluntarily access help – in doing so, it’s hard to estimate not only demand but resources needed to support it.

“You find kids and families who were just going under the radar and trying to avoid the attention of the system because they don’t want to get in trouble,” said Ribsam. “Now that they can have their needs met in a supportive way, they start to come forward for help.”

It means that as the system continues to build and solidify, it will be up to state leaders to ensure that programs like the Diversion Network, aren’t inundated with new clients they can’t care for.

And as Ribsam departs, parts of the system will continue to be built out in his absence. One of which he’d hope will get more focus is expanding the kinship program.

In a state where the opioid epidemic left many youth orphaned due to an overdose of one or both parents, kinship care – where a non-blood relative cares for the child – is more critical than ever, said Ribsam.

When you keep kids in familiar settings, with adults they know and trust, research shows they are more successful. It’s also easier to help coordinate additional services like enrolling in programs like FAST Forward, which offer tailored improvement plans before an isolated mistake becomes a pattern.

“You reduce the trauma of kids by keeping them with somebody that they know and love,” he said. “You also reduce pressure on other parts of the system, on your regular foster care system, and even your residential care system.”

Yet historically kinship families have faced barriers to supporting these children. Often, caring for a blood relative means doing so out of pocket, and juggling guardianship dilemmas like school enrollment and medical care.

A formal kinship care program will expand support for these families. The state currently is seeking proposals from vendors to expand the system.

In the last year, the state also expanded FAST Forward to include children starting infancy through five-years-old in hopes of reaching more families.

These are pieces of the foundation of children’s care that have been built and bolstered under Ribsam’s leadership.

“We’re still very much in kind of a growing process,” he said. “You have these different systems which really were kind of underutilized and kind of in little hubs by themselves, and they’re starting to reach towards each other to fill those gaps. But they’re not done yet.”

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