Office of the Child Advocate takes a hard stand, says state could have done more to protect Derry boyBy DAVE SOLOMON and KEVIN LANDRIGAN
New Hampshire Union Leader
March 01. 2018 11:40PM
CONCORD — The state’s newly appointed child advocate is calling for a full review of the murder-suicide that claimed the life of a 6-year-old Derry boy and his father, saying the deaths might have been prevented if the state had offered appropriate services to the family.
Moira O’Neill, director of the Office of the Child Advocate, on Thursday announced preliminary findings in her review of records at the Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) regarding the death of 6-year-old Preston Connor Edmunds.
“This is a clear case of a family that could have benefited from voluntary services if they existed,” O’Neill said.
Spending on voluntary services, such as counseling, was eliminated in New Hampshire in recent years, a key deficiency noted by an independent review of DCYF in 2016.
Three bills to reinstate money for these family preservation services are before the Legislature.
But the boy’s mother, Karin Edmunds, said it’s clear to her DCYF’s lack of oversight contributed to Preston’s death and she’s consulting with a lawyer about bringing a civil lawsuit against the agency.
During a telephone interview, Edmunds said she believes this latest report is an attempt to use her son’s death as a way to get the agency more state money.
“DCYF is liable for what has happened here,” said Edmunds, who divorced Preston’s father, Matt Edmunds, last September and now lives in Kingfield, Maine. “I’m talking to a lawyer and as for suing the state, I intend to.”
She also said she had spoken to DCYF officials about her concerns about the “conditions Preston was living in” and claimed the state did not bring about any changes.
“My point is he could have gotten services from the state like the ones described in this report and still did what he did. We’ll never know but clearly he was not well and the state failed to intervene,” Edmunds said.
“To single out my son’s tragedy to try and justify the need for giving the agency more money, it’s just a painful thing to endure.”
The boy and his father were found dead on Feb. 12 from carbon monoxide poisoning in the bedroom of the father’s locked mobile home at the Kendall Pond Community mobile home park in Derry. Investigators found two charcoal grills in the home, each with burned charcoal and ash.
A sign hung on the living room ceiling fan read that police “will find me and my son” in the bedroom and to be aware of “dangerous carbon monoxide levels.”
‘Assessed as strengths’
There was no open DCYF case at the time of Preston’s death, but O’Neill found eight referrals were made to the child protection agency between February 2015 and June 2017.
“None met the threshold for opening a case with support services to address abuse or neglect,” she said.
The DCYF records described the boy’s father as nurturing and protective with strong parenting skills, according to O’Neill.
“Records also documented a man constantly asking for help managing difficult family situations,” she said in a statement. “Already grieving the death of an older son, Preston’s father expressed being overwhelmed with managing family conflicts and Preston’s developing behavioral issues.”
In April 2017, the father left a DCYF child protective service worker a message indicating an emergency. He said he was “not doing well” and had lost child care services.
“But the assessment was already completed and allegations of abuse or neglect unfounded,” said O’Neill. “His requests for help were assessed as parenting strengths for keeping his children safe.”
O’Neill says the case is a good example of why the state needs to invest in so-called “voluntary services,” such as counseling and other support services for families not formally found to be abusive or neglectful, but considered to be at risk.
“We will never know what Preston’s dad was thinking when he sealed himself and his son in a room with two charcoal grills,” O’Neill said, “but if the DCYF worker had been able to open a voluntary case for this family with ‘moderate risk’ of abuse and neglect, the outcome could have been different.”
Finding the money
Senate Bill 590 now before the Legislature contains several mental health initiatives as well as measures to address child abuse. The bill calls for $1 million a year in spending on voluntary counseling and referral services for families, and $2 million for community-based prevention programs.
“Tight budgets make appropriating funds for family support services hard, but New Hampshire cannot afford this kind of family despair,” O’Neill said.
Gov. Chris Sununu expressed his support for finding the money for these services alluded to by O’Neill.
“The preliminary findings released today by the Office of the Child Advocate detail a tragic and potentially avoidable situation,” he said.
“Throughout the past year, I have visited those on the front lines at the Division of Child Youth and Family who stressed the importance of voluntary and prevention services being made available. I heard their concerns and made the restoration of these services a key priority of mine this legislative session. Those proposals are making their way through the Legislature, and I look forward to them reaching my desk.”
The Office of the Child Advocate was created last year by the state legislature to be a watchdog for the state’s child protection system, particularly the Division for Children, Youth and Families.
The position was created at the recommendation of the Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities, which proposed the initiative in 2016 after the deaths of 3-year-old Brielle Gage of Nashua in 2014 and 21-month-old Sadence Willott of Manchester in 2015. Both died while their neglect and abuse cases were under DCYF review.
O’Neill was appointed as the first director of the new office in January.