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Hassan to seek no-bid contract for DCYF review

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 13. 2016 8:12PM

Brielle Gage, 3, of Nashua, died of blunt-force trauma in 2014. Hers is one of the cases that has drawn criticism of child protection services in New Hampshire. (Courtesy)
Child protection panel wants legislation changes
The legislative Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities, which started its work last year, has recommended legislation to:
• Allow a child-protection worker to call a judge by telephone and make an oral report when necessary to obtain an emergency removal order. (Senate Bill 536)
• Lengthen the time the Division of Children, Youth and Families must keep reports of abuse or neglect archived: seven years for a complaint deemed not credible, 10 years for an unfounded complaint and indefinitely for a founded complaint. (SB 537)
• Lengthen from 24 to 48 hours (not including weekends and holidays) the time that a judge must hold a hearing after a child has been removed from the home. (SB 538)
• Grant police and the DCYF access to medical records of a child involved in an abuse or neglect investigation, without a warrant. It also allows the DCYF to disclose case records to police. (SB 539)
The commission, which heard from experts in the child protection field, also wants to extend its work until June 2017.
The chairman, Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett, said several issues still have to be addressed: availability of child protection workers round the clock, the location of a DCYF ombudsman, and the wording of the statement of purpose of the state's Child Protection Act.
Attorney General Joseph Foster has raised the issue with the law's statement of purpose. In addressing the commission, he said he would like to see a reconsideration of the priorities outlined in the statement of purpose.
Those priorities include: the protection of children, family unity whenever possible, correction of parental problems, child abuse prevention and treatment and rehabilitation of children.
Boutin said a reprioritization will take a lot of time. “It's very important,” he said. “We need to delve into it to see how it can be written better.”

Four months after announcing plans to do so, Gov. Maggie Hassan has yet to initiate an independent, comprehensive review of the state's much-criticized child protection services system.

A spokesman said the governor's office has been laying the groundwork for the review, and a contract will surface at an unspecified upcoming meeting of the Governor and Executive Council.

Hassan plans to seek a sole source contract, said spokesman William Hinkle, meaning that whatever organization is selected to do the work will get a state contract without bidding for it. He attributed the four-month delay to efforts to work with “stakeholders” inside and outside of state government.

“This isn't something that's an easy, normal process,” Hinkle said. “It takes time to identify an entity who is best suited to conduct a review.”

In the last 1½ years, the state Division of Children, Youth and Families has come under criticism on several fronts:

• In late 2014, 3-year-old Brielle Gage died in Nashua, after child-protection workers returned Gage and her four siblings to their mother and her boyfriend, even though the couple faced child-abuse charges at the time. The mother, Katlyn Marin, is awaiting trial on second-degree murder charges.

• Last September in Manchester, 21-month-old Sadie Willott died after being rushed from her Manchester apartment to the hospital. Manchester police arrested the mother, Katlin Paquette, and at the time Police Chief Nick Willard said DCYF failed to protect the little girl. Paquette remains in custody but has yet to be indicted in connection with the death.

• The same month that Willott died, a judge dismissed charges that Manchester police brought against a DCYF social worker who said she forgot to report a father who had held a gun to his 10-year-old son's head.

Three separate state entities have been giving attention to child protection services and DCYF.

State Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett, and a panel he chairs — the Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities — has started a review of the state's Child Protection Act and has proposed four legislative changes. (See accompanying story at right.)

Attorney General Joe Foster said his office is reviewing actions of DCYF in cases involving child fatalities to see if any recurring patterns exist. Lawyers from his office have also worked with Boutin's committee on the legislation.

And on Oct. 2, Hassan announced she would initiate a thorough, comprehensive and independent review of child protection services in the state. At the time, she said the review would involve both how DCYF handled disturbing cases as well as the processes, staffing, training, caseloads and laws themselves.

Last week, Hinkle said the state is negotiating a contract with the reviewer. But Hinkle did not specify when a contract will be presented to the Executive Council, the elected five-member board that must approve most state contracts.

Asked why the traditional bidding process was not used, Hinkle said the magnitude of the review requires an organization with very specific qualifications. He said the state has been working with “stakeholders” such as Foster's office, medical providers, the DCYF, police, and the judiciary to delineate the scope of the review and identify an organization best qualified to do the work.

Edwin Kelly, the chief justice of the New Hampshire Circuit Court system, said he and four other judges spoke to Hassan's legal counsel, Mary Ann Dempsey, three months ago about DCYF. Kelly said the judges limited their comments to DCYF's work in the courtroom, and whether cases were complete and professional.

“The judges had no concern at all,” Kelly said. “It was a general agreement they thought things were fine.”

Boutin said Hassan has not spoken to him about the review. “I haven't been brought into the loop of the governor's office of what they've been doing so I can't comment. She can do what she wants to do.”

Asked if Boutin was contacted about the review, Hinkle said: “Sen. Boutin's commission has done a lot of important work on this issue, and it has helped inform the sense what we need to do.”

He said Hassan expects to sign the legislation he has proposed once it goes through the Legislature.

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