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New laws foster growth in N.H. 'grandfamilies'

State House Bureau

June 27. 2017 10:31PM
Gov. Chris Sununu looks back at Denis Nugent III, 8, before signing a bill at the State House in Concord on Tuesday that gives grandparents priority for guardianship in custody cases. Denis' grandparents Rosemary and Denis Nugent of Antrim, standing behind him, worked with lawmakers to draft the bill. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD — Grandparents Rosemary and Denis Nugent of Antrim stepped up to become guardians of their grandson, Denis III, soon after he was born, as both birth parents struggled with addiction.

On Tuesday, they stood behind Gov. Chris Sununu as he signed legislation into law that will give thousands of other grandparents in a similar situation the first place in line as they seek to become legal guardians of their own grandchildren.

To many of those on hand for the ceremonial signing, Rosemary and Denis are heroes in the struggle to protect children from becoming collateral damage in the opioid crisis that is ravaging families across the state.

But to Denis III, entering third grade in the fall, they are Mimi and Papa, his caretakers and occasional opponents in a good game of Moustache Smash.

“He’s been with us since birth, basically,” said Rosemary. “Mom and Dad lived with us a while, then she just gave up and left; we tried with our son, but it just didn’t work.”

The Nugents met Rep. Mariellen MacKay, R-Nashua, when she visited a support group in Antrim for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. Every couple at the meeting cited opioid addiction as the reason.

MacKay was inspired to sponsor HB 629, to remove some of the barriers that grandparents have encountered in their attempts to achieve legally recognized guardian status.

“They were saying, ‘We have no voice.’ They couldn’t be heard in court,” said MacKay.

The new law establishes a legal preference for the appointment of a minor’s grandparents as guardians in cases triggered by the parents’ substance abuse or dependence. It also spells out in legal language that the burden of proof is on the birth parents if they want to terminate guardianship once it’s been granted.

MacKay says she believes it’s the first law of its kind in the country.

“Before I filed the legislation, I went to the Office of Legislative Research and asked them to see what’s been done in other states,” she said. “That’s when we found out there was nothing out there. It hasn’t been done. We have created model legislation.”

MaryLou Beaver, state director for the child advocacy group Every Child Matters, said the legislation is well-timed, given the growing number of grandparents who are now caregivers.

Using census data, the group estimates that the number of New Hampshire households with grandparents as primary caretakers has grown substantially — from about 4,000 in 2007 to 10,000 today.

There is no census data that links the trend to opioid addiction, but “we’re hearing that from the grandparents themselves,” said Beaver.

Sununu signed a related bill into law on Tuesday, SB 148, establishing a commission to study families in which grandparents are raising their grandchildren, using the term “grandfamilies.”

The commission is expected to begin its work in the fall of 2018, starting with a review of current data regarding grandfamilies in New Hampshire and barriers facing the guardian grandparents.

“Both of these bills revolve around grandparents and their vital role in the family structure, especially in dealing with the crisis we have in the state,” said Sununu at the ceremonial signing.

“We’re making sure that grandparents are not just afforded a pathway, but an appropriate and easy pathway, to make sure they stand first in line to take care of their families. We are able to break down some of the barriers and open up those opportunities.”

Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, the lead sponsor of SB 148, expects the commission to investigate a full range of issues surrounding grandfamilies, including why New Hampshire has such a low rate of foster children in grandparent care.

According to the national advocacy group Generations United, using 2014 data, only 12 percent of New Hampshire children in foster care were being cared for by a grandparent or relative, compared to states like Florida, at 46 percent, and Arizona, at 43 percent.

“There is a lot we don’t know, and I’d like to get the stakeholders together in order to really investigate what all the issues are, because we don’t want to miss anything,” Hennessey said. “The grandparents are counting on us.”

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