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Lawmakers back proposal to enhance powers of Child Advocate

State House Bureau

April 18. 2018 11:13AM
Child Advocate Moira O'Neill testifies before the House Committee on Children and Family on Tuesday about changes to the statute that created her office. (Dave Solomon / Union Leader)

CONCORD — Anyone who has an issue with child protective services in New Hampshire will be able to bring a complaint to the newly created Office of Child Advocate if a proposed amendment to the child advocate statute is signed into law.

The amendment, endorsed unanimously by the House Children and Family Law Committee on Tuesday, would broaden the investigative reach of the office created by the Legislature last year.

“This affects our authority and ability to function and complete our mission as mandated,” said Child Advocate Moira O’Neill. “It opens access to the office to all citizens of New Hampshire.”

Currently, only a handful of people are authorized to initiate investigations by O’Neill and her office, including the governor, Commissioner of Health and Human Services, Speaker of the House, Senate President or the Oversight Commission on Children’s Services.

“Our mission is to oversee DCYF, and to me that suggests we need to be accessible to all citizens who may have complaints, particularly children, parents and foster parents,” O’Neill told the committee. “Right now we wouldn’t deny those calls, but having them in statute is more efficient.”

The committee endorsed other proposed changes to the Office of Child Advocate law, including the authority to make information public, with identifying details redacted. Under current law, only the commissioner is authorized to release such information.

When O’Neill recently released the results of her investigation into the murder-suicide that claimed the life of a 6-year-old Derry boy, she had to rely on the commissioner’s authority.

“It was very clear to us that it was important that the public know there was a breakdown in the system that might have prevented that child’s death,” said O’Neill. “So the commissioner allowed us to use some of his authority and disclose some of that information.”

Given the potential conflicts for the commissioner in such situations, O’Neill said she needs independent authority to disclose.

“If we are to identify a problem that is systemic in the way children are being treated, it will be critical to be able to disclose the details of those situations so we can see where the flaws are in order to improve those systems,” she said.

The changes were proposed as an amendment to SB 479, which has already passed the Senate. The underlying bill requires the child advocate to submit an annual report to the Oversight Commission on Children’s Services and clarifies the duties of the commission.

The amendment endorsed on Tuesday was proposed by Rep. Skip Berrien, D-Exeter, who served on the Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities.

The House Children and Family Law Committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to send the bill as amended to the House with an ought-to-pass recommendation.

Keith Kuenning, director of Advocacy for New Hampshire Child and Family Services, called the changes to the child advocate statute “absolutely necessary.”

“The whole point of the child advocate is to bring attention to issues we are facing in the system,” he said. “If she is the only one who knows the information, how does that help the Legislature? How does that help the children?”

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