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Kids in danger
How New Hampshire’s laws can change to better protect children

01/28/16
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



 When the state’s Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities first began meeting this summer, the response to the death of 21-month-old Sadence “Sadie” Willott of Manchester frustrated Police Chief Nick Willard, who openly criticized the Division of Children, Youth and Families for failing to protect the child and accused the agency of not cooperating with his department in its investigation.

“The police chief was rather upset with DCYF pertaining to getting access [to case records],” said Republican Sen. David Boutin of Hooksett, who chaired the commission.
The girl’s death has lawmakers and law enforcement pointing out that the systems in place to protect New Hampshire’s children still aren’t enough, despite the fact that a number of high-profile child fatalities in recent years have spurred state senators and house reps to close the gaps in laws that allow abuse or neglect to go on.
 
Some progress
The effort began after Nov. 25, 2014, when Brielle Gage, a 3-year-old girl from Nashua, was killed, allegedly at the hands of her mother. Brielle and her brothers had previously been taken into protective custody but were returned to their mother, Katlyn Marin — who’s facing second-degree murder charges — even though she was already facing assault charges for allegedly beating her 8-year-old son. 
At that time, Boutin sponsored a bill that, when signed into law last session, required home visits for each child endangerment notification and prohibited the return of children removed from a home until the court finds there’s no imminent threat and that parents are actively working to resolve the circumstances that led to the removal.
The Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities has submitted four more bills to be voted on this session. It has brought forth proposals for retaining complaint records longer (indefinitely for complaints that are founded), streamlining court proceedings so both law enforcement and DCYF can get involved early on, making it easier for agencies to get a court order to put children into protective custody and freeing up existing case files so they’re shared between law enforcement and DCYF.
On his list of items Boutin hopes to address is a way to provide 24/7 crisis support through DCYF. This would be an added cost, so DCYF is putting together a plan on how to do this. It will present its plan to the commission on Jan. 29. Another thing Boutin wants to look into is making the DCYF ombudsman an independent party separate from the health department.
 
What about drugs?
Many of the child abuse cases are related to parental drug misuse, officials say, but none of the proposed law changes would proactively remove children from families with known substance abuse problems. Rather, they are all ways to improve the reaction by social services and law enforcement when abuses have already been reported. 
“If someone is a drug addict, maybe the child’s not being raised in the best way, but this is not what we’re focusing on,” Boutin said. “I can’t tell you that we have some specific silver bullet that we’re going to use that’s going to make people be nice to kids.”
DCYF Director Lorraine Bartlett says drug-related interventions happen already.
“I think that there are those circumstances where, when parents are using heroin, and we know the lethality of heroin, that if they’re not willing and able to engage in treatment, it at times does require that the Division for Children, Youth and Families step in, intervene and remove those children,” Bartlett said. “I certainly would not advocate that the parents’ rights be terminated right away.”
There’s a big “if” there. It hinges on the parent’s willingness to engage in treatment over the course of 12 months. But treatment providers recognize that road is not a straight or short one.
Bartlett stresses that her social workers are not law enforcement officers, but she would like to see them empowered with the ability and funding to perform drug testing.
This, she says, would help the court make a better-informed decision about family reunification or permanency. 
 
Systematic pitfalls
DCYF is walking a very thin line: trying to protect kids but also the rights of parents. 
Amy Connolly, a lawyer who’s worked child custody cases for about 10 years in southern New Hampshire — first as a prosecutor and now as a family attorney with Russman Law — says the state’s failure to protect kids in many cases is systematic. 
“DCYF’s role has changed. Initially, several years ago, their goal was to protect children’s interests. DCYF’s goal now is to reunify the family,” Connolly said.
She also says the legal avenues for a parent to protect children from a potentially abusive or neglectful spouse are very narrow and prohibitive.
“So a parent can’t go into court and say, ‘I’m concerned about my kid being neglected and abused’ and file something with the court to ask for a release. In order to do that, there has to be an open case and the only way to have an open case is to have either a divorce pending or a parenting plan pending,” Connolly said. 
And she says the burden of proof for whether a parent with a known addiction is unfit to have equal custody rights always falls on the sober parent.
“I think that the burden is misplaced. It should be on the parent who has the drug problem or the alcohol problem. They should show why a shared arrangement is appropriate rather than having the sober parent having to show that having parenting time equal is not appropriate,” Connolly said. 





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