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For at-risk cases, Senate committee likes DCYF label, balks at price tag

  • Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers speaks during a meeting at the State House in June 2016. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file



Monitor staff
Thursday, May 25, 2017

Struggling parents at risk of abusing their children won’t get state-funded parenting classes or counseling after the measure failed Wednesday due to cost concerns.

The proposal would have set up a label for reports of child abuse that don’t meet the threshold to take to court, but are still troubling. Parents who were issued a new “letter of concern” would have had services paid for by the Division for Children, Youth and Families.

Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee balked at the estimated $4.4 million price tag. After members reworked the proposal – stripping out the funding and leaving the new label intact – it passed the committee unanimously.

“The legislative process doesn’t go from A to Z; it’s incremental,” said Sen. Bob Giuda, a Warren Republican. “This is a really good step in the right direction.”

Under the bill, child protection workers have a way to identify reports where allegations are true, but don’t rise to a high enough level for an official finding. It addresses concerns raised in an independent review that said workers often labeled reports unfounded, even when parents admitted to abuse or promised to change. The new tier – unfounded with concern – would make it easier for DCYF to note problems in a family’s file and spot potential patterns of mistreatment.

The bill wouldn’t change much about how at-risk families, without founded reports, get help. It tells DCYF to refer families to services, which child protection workers already do, they have said. Parents would still have to pay their own way. The proposal, an amendment to House Bill 400, calls on the agency to report back to lawmakers about the estimated costs of expanding services.

Jeffrey Meyers, commissioner at the state Department of Health and Human Services, said he supports the new third label, but without funding, he said it may not succeed.

“Many of the people we would refer to services may not have the income to pay for those services,” he said.

DCYF records show that Sadee Willott’s family was referred to parenting programs and encouraged to have the toddler followed by a doctor, before she was killed by her mother in 2015. It’s not clear whether the family got those services before Willott died at 21 months old.

The Legislature eliminated funding for voluntary services five years ago, according to DHHS. Now, DCYF doesn’t have funding to help to pay for child care, counseling or addiction treatment for parents who want help.

Experts say prevention can keep kids safe and reduce stress on the system later on. The independent review of DCYF, released last year, recommended the state restore funding for voluntary services.

Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley proposed the restoration Wednesday, but reworked the bill after GOP budget writers raised cost concerns. Some suggested the money can be revisited in January.

Gov. Chris Sununu and state lawmakers are working on ways to reform the state’s child protection agency, which has faced scrutiny since two toddlers were killed under its watch several years ago.

The Legislature is poised to sign off on a number of measures this year, including increasing the number of child protection workers and creating an independent office to oversee DCYF.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)