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Lawmakers pushing three bills to reshape DCYF

State House Bureau

February 12. 2018 9:46PM

CONCORD — Lawmakers continue to reshape the state’s child protective services with another set of sweeping proposals costing an estimated $14 million.

Three bills now before the legislature would add social workers, nurses, lawyers and licensed alcohol and drug counselor positions to the Division for Children, Youth and Families. New programs would be developed to provide counseling services to families with cases under DCYF review.

Municipalities and counties would be encouraged to develop child abuse prevention programs, court diversion programs and alternatives to out-of-home placements.

The initiatives are part of an effort that began two years ago after one child in Nashua and another in Manchester died while their cases were under DCYF review, despite concerns raised by local police and extensive contact between DCYF and the families involved.

Now the legislature is considering additional measures to address child abuse — a problem that has intensified as the relentless opioid epidemic places more children at risk every day.

“Obviously this has been a front-line topic for us, and we want to put all the resources that we have in the right way toward really combating the issue of abused kids, and that’s never an easy issue for anyone,” said Gov. Chris Sununu.

“When you look at all the different aspects of what these bills will do, it’s not just about reducing case loads. Just limiting cases doesn’t mean we are solving the problem. Do we need to look at pay for frontline workers? Yes. Do we need to look at filling the vacancies? Yes. Do we need to look at new programming? Absolutely.”

Two of the bills were introduced to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Feb. 8.

Senate Bill 590 contains several mental health initiatives as well as measures to address child abuse, including appropriations for counseling services and community-based prevention programs, as well as three new attorneys in DCYF.

The costs are estimated at $780,000 for 12 new social worker positions, $1 million to fund voluntary counseling and referral services for families, $2 million for community-based prevention programs and $1 million for three new DCYF attorneys.

Offering incentives

The second bill presented on Feb. 8, Senate Bill 592, offers incentives to cities and towns to reduce the number of child protection cases and authorizes the hiring of 16 additional child protective services workers (four of whom will be supervisors), four licensed alcohol and drug counselors and two registered nurses.

The nurses would be hired to support health programs for children in foster care and “to address the critical shortage of medical professionals with specialty knowledge to assess and respond to severe child abuse and neglect,” according to the bill.

Cost estimates for SB 592 include nearly $2 million in incentives to cities and towns; $1.2 million for home visiting services; and $1.5 million for the new staff positions.

The third bill, SB 582, limits each child protective services worker to no more than 12 active cases at a time, which is the national standard for best outcomes. Caseworkers in New Hampshire have carried as many as 40 or even 50 active cases.

Reducing case loads to the level required by SB 582 would mean another 54 assessment workers, 16 more family services workers and 10 new supervisors, at a total annual cost of $5 million.

Not all will be funded

Some of the bills overlap and much of the money would come from federal sources. The final outcome on these proposals is far from certain, but spending on DCYF is likely to increase significantly.

“Are we really going to get better outcomes? That’s where I think we need to look at these bills to see if they will truly generate better outcomes,” said Sununu. “I think on the whole they would, but let’s be smart about how we’re spending those dollars.”

All three bills enjoy bipartisan support, with Republicans and Democrats in leadership positions listed as cosponsors. That doesn’t mean they’ll all be signed into law.

“I don’t think everything in those bills is going to pass,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley. “We’ll take them one at a time. We can’t do everything at once. The improvements need to come over time and over multiple budgets.”

Building on the past

Bradley said the initiatives proposed this year build on what was accomplished in 2016 and 2017.

A legislative commission was set up to investigate child abuse fatalities and an outside review of DCYF was conducted in 2016. In 2017, lawmakers ordered another independent review of the DCYF, with a report completed no later than Nov. 1, 2019.

They also approved creation of an Oversight Commission on Children’s Services and Juvenile Justice and the Office of Child Advocate, to provide independent oversight of DCYF, and they added 20 caseworker positions.

An associate commissioner of human services position was created to focus on child welfare and behavioral health, while a new director of DCYF was hired as well.

The state’s Child Protection Act was rewritten to establish as its primary purpose “protection of children whose life, health or welfare is endangered,” while moving protection of parental rights to a secondary purpose.

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Thank you, Sununu