State's child advocate moving on

Moira O’Neill, the state’s first child advocate, said she would not seek another term when her current one ends in January. Here O’Neill, left, listens as Jane Tewksbury from Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice talked about reforming the state’s juvenile justice system at a meeting in Concord in 2019.

CONCORD — The state’s first child advocate confirmed she won’t be seeking a second term when the current one expires this January.

Moira O’Neill was appointed in 2018 after the Legislature created this independent oversight office in response to the deaths of children under the care of the Division of Children Youth and Families (DCYF).

Prior to coming here, O’Neill had been the assistant child advocate in Connecticut for 11 years, and she had done doctoral research on the topic at Yale University.

“This opportunity was the capstone of a career and scholarship,” O’Neill said. “I am grateful for the governor’s appointment and the steady support of the Oversight Commission on Children’s Services. It is an honor to put one’s expertise at the disposal of children’s interests.”

O’Neill was given high marks in staffing the new office and in creating an evidence-based process for reviewing critical incidents affecting child welfare that was grounded in safety science.

The state is in the final year of a four-year grant from the Casey Family Programs to overhaul its review process.

“We found little evidence of progress or improved child outcomes in the traditional sensational, blaming approach to oversight,” O’Neill said. “Safety Science relies upon an investment in relationships and making safe space for examining the many layers of influences on decision making.”

A 2020 state law created the 18-member oversight commission that will now recommend “in rank order” three qualified candidates for Gov. Chris Sununu to replace O’Neill as the child advocate.

DCYF changes since office created

Sen. Sharon Carson R-Londonderry, chairs the panel and Sen. Becky Whitley, D-Hopkinton, is the other Senate member.

“This is a really big loss for New Hampshire. She took on a big job with complicated politics, complicated systems and did great work,” Whitley said.

“I think she has really brought that office to a very good place and made it such a trusted and strong voice.”

Whitley said O’Neill’s combination of clinical work and research expertise helped bring instant credibility to the office.

In her letter confirming the news, O’Neill praised Sununu and the commission for backing her up.

“I commend you for your willingness to support an entity and process that is not always comfortable in the pursuit of quality improvement,” O’Neill wrote.

“The next step for a healthy organization is to assure its strength is not tied to a specific leader. Therefore, I made the decision to step away.”

Whitley said DCYF has also made improvements since the child advocate office was created.

The state has cut the load for caseworkers and been moving towards a system that, as a first priority, offers help to families before their children have to enter the state’s child protection system.

“We are not where we need to be, but we’ve made incredible progress, and I fully expect that to continue under (DCYF) Director Joe Ribsam’s leadership,” Whitley added.