CONCORD — Republicans in the state Legislature are poised to support Gov. Chris Sununu in a pitched battle with Democrats over the state budget, with only weeks to go before the current spending plan expires on June 30.

But when it comes to spending on child protection, Republicans in the House and Senate are parting ways with the governor, as they line up behind legislation co-sponsored by 13 of the 14 Senate Democrats and the chair of the powerful House Finance Committee.

“This bill delivers on one of the most fundamental responsibilities government has to its people: protecting its most vulnerable population, abused and neglected children,” said Sen. Jon Morgan, D-Brentwood, prime sponsor of Senate Bill 6.

The bill passed the Senate, 23-0, in February, and on Thursday will go to the House floor with a 16-0 endorsement from the House Children and Family Law Committee.

It funds 77 new positions in the Division for Children, Youth and Families over two years at a cost of $8.6 million, consisting of 57 new child protective service workers (CPSW) and 20 new supervisors.

The 57 new case workers represent a 44-percent increase over the current staffing at DCYF, which has 129 existing protective service worker positions.

“What are we really trying to achieve with this bill? We’re attempting to set the path for child protection in New Hampshire for the next 10 years,” according to Rebecca Woitkowski, early childhood policy coordinator for New Futures’ Kids Count. “We are trying to avoid the mistakes we’ve made in the past 10 years.”

In her written testimony on behalf of SB 6, Woitkowski goes on to say, “This is not the final piece of the puzzle, but this bill is unbelievably important. It is our best chance to protect New Hampshire’s children and keep them safe as we go forward.”

Sununu’s version of the state budget would authorize 62 new DCYF positions, but pay for only 26. More could be funded as the agency fills its current openings and the 26 new positions.

Democrats have seized on the issue in an attempt to portray Sununu as unresponsive to a child protection crisis. At a recent State House news conference, Democratic lawmakers were joined by a DCYF case worker and a former client of DCYF services in pressing for the Senate bill. Also speaking at that event was Dr. Lawrence Shulman of Grantham, chairman of the DCYF Advisory Board.

“The small increase in DCYF staff that Gov. Sununu is proposing is not sufficient to meet the need for either child protection interventions or ongoing family support services,” he said.

The agency has been struggling to fill the 33 new positions authorized in the current two-year budget, amid a high turnover rate for new hires. Despite the new positions and increased appropriations for 2018-2019, workforce problems persist. From September 2018 to February 2019, open assessments increased from 3,329 to 4,126; the vacancy rate in child protective worker positions has gone from 14 to 19 percent; and the average number of open assessments per case worker (which should be 12 to 15 according to national standards) has gone from 34 to 45.

“A high caseload is probably the single most influencing factor in caseworker turnover,” says Emily Lawrence, associate director with the Office of the Child Advocate.

“From the child’s point of view, this is problematic on several levels … The calls that affect the Child Advocate Office the most are calls that come in from the children themselves. These are heartbreaking. Children should not be making excuses for the failures of an under-resourced state system.”

For now, Sununu remains convinced that the more frugal path is to see how many positions DCYF can fill before putting more money on the table.

“This legislation (SB 6) seeks to build upon the progress we made with child welfare reform in 2018 and rebuilding our child welfare system has been a priority since day one,” he said in a statement on Monday. “I continue to believe we need to put more front-line workers in the field to protect our most vulnerable children, and will review the final language of the bill should it reach my desk.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com