Competing foster care bills head to ConcordBy DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau
October 07. 2017 7:54PM
CONCORD - Two competing versions of a bill of rights for foster parents will soon be presented to the state Legislature, at a time when New Hampshire is struggling to find enough foster parents to care for the growing number of children displaced by the opioid addiction crisis.
A petition by the New Hampshire. Foster and Adoptive Parent Association (NHFAPA) for a bill of rights has collected more than 1,000 signatures on change.org, while a state representative who is also a foster parent plans to introduce what he calls a stronger bill of rights in the upcoming legislative session.
Rep. Sean Morrison, R-Epping, described the 13-point bill of rights posted on change.org as "very, very soft" and heavily influenced by the Department for Children, Youth and Families.
The bill of rights proposed by NHFAPA would require that foster parents be given notice regarding child placement decisions, it would allow them a voice in court and in planning visitation between children and their birth parents, and it would give foster parents consideration if adoption of the child becomes the primary goal.
Morrison's bill of rights has already been filed as a legislative service request, the first step toward introduction of a bill in the Legislature. His proposal mirrors the NHFAPA petition in some ways, but goes much further, with 20 different points.
Morrison's proposal includes references to "freedom from coercion, discrimination and reprisal for voicing your concerns about a child in your care," and "a commitment that DCYF shall not discharge, threaten or otherwise discriminate or retaliate against a foster parent for any appropriate inquiry regarding the decisions or practices of DCYF."
The Epping lawmaker is also pushing for mandatory drug testing of birth parents before reunification with children who were taken out of a home because of drug abuse.
The dueling proposals are both posted to the website of a newly created organization for foster parents, established last month, called the Alliance for NH Foster Parents, at fosteringchangenh.org.
"Individuals dedicated to improving our child welfare system and giving foster parents a stronger voice in child abuse and neglect cases, came together to establish an organization aimed at advocacy, education and reform," according to the alliance website.
Foster parents now have two competing efforts to protect their rights, and two organizations claiming to represent their interests. Morrison believes that's because many foster parents feel the need to connect without DCYF oversight.
"You can't go to a foster parent peer support group or a meeting without a manager from DCYF sitting there," he said. "You can't go on a foster parent Facebook page without being monitored by a paid vendor."
Stephanie Sullivan, vice president of NHFAPA and a foster parent herself, says she hopes to see more collaboration.
"Let's move forward with consistency so our foster parents aren't getting varying messages," she said. "I hope we can work together because it is only to the benefit of foster families to sit down and have an educated conversation with each other. I don't see why we can't come together for one collaborative effort."
Morrison says the interests of foster parents and the objectives of DCYF do not always align, and that the NHFAPA is essentially a front for the agency even though it represents itself as an independent advocacy group.
On its website, NHFAPA acknowledges that it supports 12 local support groups across the state and works with DCYF district offices.
That sometimes creates difficult situations for foster parents who want to take issue with DCYF actions and policies, either at NHFAPA meetings or on the NHFAPA Facebook page.
Morrison says DCYF representatives have tried to muzzle his criticism of the agency by suggesting they could revoke his foster license, since cooperation with the agency is a condition of foster parenting.
"That is why I am demanding that any paid vendor, employer or contractor of DCYF step down from any leadership position in any foster parent support group," he said, citing Sullivan as an example.
While serving as vice president of NHFAPA and the lead proponent of that group's foster parent bill of rights, Sullivan is also being paid by DCYF as a "facilitator" of the FAIR program in the Milford area.
FAIR stands for Family Assessment and Inclusive Reunification, a program whose purpose includes coordinating family assessments and reunification meetings. The Executive Council has approved $200,000 in DCYF contracts with Sullivan over the past four years.
Morrison cites other connections between DCYF and NHFAPA leadership, including the fact that NHFAPA President Michele Woltering is an instructor in a Foster and Adoptive Care Essentials class at Granite State College in partnership with DCYF.
"I will trust NHFAPA as an organization when their leadership is not paid by DCYF," Morrison said. "Not until then."
Sullivan said the situation does not constitute a conflict of interest, but actually enhances her ability to serve the NHFAPA organization.
"I make my boundaries very clear," she said. "I work under a federal mandate and the federal mandate requires all children in out-of-home cases have their case assessed by a set of independent and neutral eyes. So I do not work for the division. I am an independent contractor."
Morrison is realistic about the chances of his 20-point bill of rights becoming law, but intends to press the case as far as he can.
"I was already told that certain lawmakers will not support my bill of rights because it sounds like it was written by an angry foster parent," he said.
DHHS spokesman Jake Leon said the department stands ready to work with all stakeholders to develop a foster parents bill of rights that would help strengthen the foster care system.
"DCYF welcomes all feedback, including both positive stories and challenges experienced, from foster parents and foster parent organizations throughout the State and believes that the perspectives of many voices are critical to understanding the needs of the children and caregivers in the foster care system," he wrote in a statement.
"NHFAPA is one of many critical stakeholders and the division encourages all stakeholders to join together to ensure our foster care system addresses the needs and interests of both foster children and foster families."