In marathon session, state senators move to fix scandal-plagued DCYF
CONCORD – A bill to reorganize New Hampshire’s troubled child protective services agency easily passed the state Senate on Thursday on a voice vote.
But another measure that would have funded additional social workers at the state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families, which was recommended in an independent review of the agency, was defeated.
The two votes concerning DCYF came as the state Senate took action during a marathon session on some 50 pieces of legislation, including minimum wage, state funding for private schools, tightening food stamp eligibility, and Medicaid expansion.
The measure on DCYF, formally known as SB239, would create an associate commissioner position at the agency that would be appointed by the governor. And it would also set up an Office of Child Advocate, which Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley predicted “will be a watchdog over DCYF.”
The original bill, authored by Republican Sen. Sharon Carson, of Londonderry, called for moving DCYF out of the Department of Health and Human Services and making it a stand-alone department. But that language was scaled down in committee due to pushback by lawmakers over the price tag associated with creating another state department with its own commissioner.
And lawmakers urged that DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers be given a chance to follow through with reforms already underway at DCYF.
But Carson stressed that “we have to get to the bottom of what’s going on here in order to fix it.”
Carson serves on the Commission on Child Abuse Fatalities, which was appointed after the deaths in 2014 and 2015 of two children who’s cases were under DCYF supervision. The agency is also facing multiple lawsuits.
An outside review of DCYF called for by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan revealed that the agency was classifying too many cases as “unfounded.”
Last weekend the Concord Monitor reported that as the outside review was getting underway last year, DCYF dismissed some 1,500 child abuse cases without following standard protocol. On Monday Gov. Chris Sununu, Hassan’s successor in the Corner Office, placed DCYF director Lorraine Bartlett on administrative leave. Bartlett had planned to retire on April 1.
READ: NH DCYF director placed on administrative leave after closing 1,520 open child assessments in 2 days
After the vote, Carson said in a statement that “part of our responsibilities as elected officials is to ensure the well-being of our citizens, including our children are safe and cared for. And as we continue to learn more about the unacceptable actions and issues plaguing DCYF in New Hampshire, it is our responsibility to respond by strengthening protections for our children.”
The outside review of DCYF also recommended more manpower at the agency, but the Senate tabled SB223, which would have funded additions social workers. All 14 Republicans in the chamber voted to table the bill, with the nine Democrats present voting against sidetracking the measure.
In explaining the move, Bradley pointed to Sununu’s blueprint for the state’s next two-year budget, which calls for funding for those additional DCYF positions. But the top Democrat in the chamber criticized his Republican colleagues.
“It is contradictory and baffling to me to hear the Governor call for a reevaluation of thousands of cases previously closed by DCYF on Monday, and then listen to my Republican colleagues delay a vote for more funding to support DCYF on Thursday,” Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn said in a statement after the vote.
In another 14-9 party line vote, the Senate passed a bill that would create education savings accounts (ESAs) that would allow public money to be used to pay for private school tuition.
Americans For Prosperity New Hampshire state director Greg Moore applauded the vote, saying “education savings accounts would give New Hampshire parents more options to find the best choice for their children, so that no parent is forced to send their children to a school that doesn’t provide the best opportunity for them.”
But Democratic state Sen. David Watters of Dover charged that “SB 193 is patently unconstitutional and opens the door to school vouchers and the national, GOP-led campaign for so-called ‘school choice,’ efforts that use tax dollars to fund private, religious schools for the disproportionate benefit of the wealthy.”
In other action, the Senate passed SB190, a bill by Democratic Sen. Donna Soucy of Manchester to repeal the sunset provision in the first responder’s critical injury benefit fund. The chamber also unanimously approved SB19, a measure by Democratic Sen. Dan Feltes of Concord to fund an additional attorney at the Department of Justice to better enforce New Hampshire’s election and lobbying laws.
In another 14-9 party line vote, the Senate passed SB7, a measure by Republican Sen. Kevin Avard of Nashua that would tighten food stamp eligibility.
Without debate, the Senate tabled a bill that would have extended the state’s Medicaid Expansion program for another, citing the uncertainly of the efforts in the nation’s capital to repeal and replace Obamacare.
In a bipartisan vote, lawmakers approved a bill to create a syringe collection and dispensation program to fight the spread of communicable diseases associated with heroin misuse.
And senators also passed a measure to increase protections for children exposed to lead in paint and drinking water.