Children in need caught in a perfect storm
There is a perfect storm brewing for New Hampshire’s kids right now, with three separate but interconnected issues coming to bear: the critical need for new leadership and new direction at the State’s Division of Children, Youth and Families; an opioid crisis, now in its sixth year; and a shortage of licensed foster families. The result is that abused and neglected children in New Hampshire are often not being cared for as they should be, and policymakers, parents and citizens need to take action before we let one more child suffer.
Foster care has been lost in the discussions and reports about DCYF and the opioid crisis, but it plays an important role in New Hampshire’s overall system of care for abused or neglected children, providing shelter, food, clothing, guidance and love to children who have been removed from their homes.
Foster care placements help ensure that children can stay close to their communities, schools and social networks — not hundreds of miles away or in another state. The problem is that the number of foster care homes available is not keeping pace with demand, which is increasing dramatically. The year-to-date average of New Hampshire children in foster care family placements is now 805, up from 618 in 2016.
The major cause for the rise is the opioid crisis. The NH Children’s Trust recently reported that the number of children removed from homes with substance abuse problems went from 85 in 2010 to 329 in 2015 — a 387 percent increase. But while the number of children needing care continues to rise, the rate the state pays for this essential service has remained 30 to 40 percent less than what it really costs to care for them.
To be clear, foster care funds offset the costs of care for the child and are not a salary for the caregiver; but both the amount the state pays and the rate structure have to be addressed because they are severely limiting the availability of safe and secure placements for children in need.
National reports show that New Hampshire has one of the lower rates of children in foster care in the country. The numbers in Vermont and Maine are 11 and 7 per thousand, respectively, but New Hampshire’s is only 4 per thousand. To me, this disparity reinforces the need to continue oversight of the audit of DCYF that began in 2015. It found that more cases of abuse and neglect are routinely dismissed here than in our neighboring states.
The low number of foster care placements in New Hampshire compared with the states closest to us is also concerning in light of reports that DCYF staff arbitrarily closed over 1,500 open cases of child abuse or negligence on a single day last year.
The methodologies New Hampshire uses to set rates, and what kinds of supportive or wraparound services are covered for children in crisis, need to be examined too. New Hampshire does not have a formal diagnostic tool to determine specialized care, but there are numerous states with models for diagnostic tools that we could look at and learn from.
For example, Massachusetts has a program called PACT (Parents and Children Together) that compensates families who provide planned and specialized services for kids and works with foster and pre-adoptive parents.
There are no easy fixes to any of the three problems creating this perfect storm, but all three are on the radar of the Legislature this year. DCYF – where significant reform needs to happen this year, not at some date in the future - is being addressed in legislation to create a new Office of Child Advocate, and in the state operating budget. The opioid crisis continues to be both a budget item and a source of numerous policy initiatives. But foster care has not been on the front page, but should be, because we need placements for kids who simply have nowhere to go. The smallest and most vulnerable among us simply don’t have years to wait for the adults in the room to take action.
If you are wondering what you can do as a citizen, consider becoming a foster parent, please reach out to DCYF Foster Care and Adoption Services at 800-852-3345 or Child and Family Services at 603-801-4108.
Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, is the ranking Democrat on the House Finance Committee.