N.H. Senate passes bills to bolster DCYF services

  • The Senate convenes at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 3/14/2018 8:00:23 PM

New Hampshire senators approved a trio of bills to help shore up the Division for Children, Youth and Families on Wednesday, moving for the second time in two years to help an agency beset by deficiencies in staffing and funding.

In a set of unanimous votes, the Senate voted to provide around $5.5 million to help DCYF rebuild its programs after a series of cuts seven years ago. Voting in favor of Senate bills 582, 590 and 592, legislators moved to set aside funding to create 13 new child protection social worker positions, bolster foster care programs, add to a state loan repayment program intended to attract work and restore voluntary services to families.

“It is a start,” said Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Claremont. “And it is badly needed.”

Many of the changes were requested by DCYF, which for years has faced a backlog of cases that have tied its workers’ hands. The agency has faced scrutiny in recent years after a string of deaths of children under its care; an independent audit in 2016 recommended significant changes to staffing and programs.

Among the bills’ most anticipated items is the restoration of voluntary services, which allow families to access counseling and other programs without the need for a formal case. That funding was cut entirely in 2011 – recently a newly appointed watchdog over the agency said the availability of the services could have headed off a father-son murder-suicide in Derry last month.

SB 590 would restore the funding to $1.5 million. And SB 592 would eliminate language that requires families to pay back the cost of those services, a provision the agency says can act as a deterrent.

In a statement, Gov. Chris Sununu praised the bills’ passage, calling them “the accumulation of a year that has seen the most transformative progress in child welfare services in the history of New Hampshire.”

And he took a moment to chalk up a political victory.

“Today’s vote reinforces my administration’s commitment to ensuring that those in our state who cannot care for themselves have access to strong support services,” he said.

The bills are not over to the House yet – Wednesday’s votes push them into the Senate Finance Committee – but the unanimous tallies suggest momentum. Still, looming over discussion on the legislation was the chamber’s long history of inaction.

Since they were cut during the era of Speaker Bill O’Brien, voluntary services have yet to be restored, whether under Govs. John Lynch, Maggie Hassan or Chris Sununu. In charged remarks Wednesday, members of the Senate appeared to allude to missteps on both sides.

“We’re here recognizing that mistakes were made,” said Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord. “There’s more work to do. It’s okay to look at history. To learn from it. To learn from our mistakes.”

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley agreed.

“We can afford to do this and we should do it,” Bradley said. “And we should learn from the fact we haven’t done it for several budget cycles.”

Senate President Chuck Morse, in an impassioned speech, rejected any finger-pointing over the lack of action.

“I’m as disappointed as anyone,” he said, he maintained that Wednesday’s votes should remain the focus.

“We’re leading, and that’s the way it should be,” he said. “And I applaud the Senate for leading. And I applaud the governor for leading.”

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

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