OPINION: New Hampshire IS learning from child deaths – but it’s learning the wrong lessons

Print More

Richard Wexler, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org

By Richard Wexler

“We’re still not learning from child deaths,” says Moira O’Neill, director of New Hampshire’s Office of the Child Advocate.

Actually, it’s worse than that. New Hampshire is learning – but it’s learning the wrong lessons. In the process it’s making all of the state’s vulnerable children less safe.  And O’Neill bears some responsibility for that.

O’Neill’s first annual report embraces the Big Lie of American child welfare – that children are endangered because lawmakers and courts supposedly are making the “best interests of the child” subordinate to “parents rights.”

There are two problems with the claim: First, the data show that New Hampshire is, in fact, on the other extreme, embracing a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare and consigning children to the chaos of foster care at a higher rate than almost anywhere else in America.  Second, child removal does not, in fact, equal child safety.  In many cases it makes children less safe.

O’Neill bases her claim on anecdotes from DCYF caseworkers and attorneys.  This is like saying the criminal justice system has a policy of coddling criminals because prosecutors and police don’t always get their way.  She complains that judges don’t always follow DCYF recommendations or believe DCYF experts.  But if judges should always rubber-stamp DCYF what do we need a court system for?

If the cases O’Neill cites “prove” a bias toward “parents’ rights” what is “proven” by the story of the child allegedly rushed into a substandard New Hampshire foster home, where she suffered traumatic brain injuries.  It proves nothting.  That’s the point. When anecdotes collide it’s time to look at the data.

  • The data show that New Hampshire tears apart families at the sixth highest rate in America, even when rates of family poverty are factored in. The rate of removal in New Hampshire is more than double the national average and more than triple the rate of states where independent court-appointed monitors have found that curbing needless foster care improved child safety.  Does anyone really believe New Hampshire children are twice as safe from abuse as the national average?  O’Neill certainly doesn’t seem to think so.
  • In just three years, from 2014 to 2017, the number of children torn from their families in New Hampshire nearly doubled– hardly the record of a state bending over backwards to coddle abusive parents. And it’s not because of opioids, either.  It’s because of a failed knee-jerk response to opioids.  The other factor: foster-care panic, a fear by everyone in the system of having the next high-profile child abuse tragedy on their caseloads.

And that brings us to the second problem with O’Neill’s thesis – her insistence that child removal equals child safety.

This contradicts what science tells us on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin.  But let’s start with this:  The typical cases are nothing like the horror stories.  Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.”  Other cases fall between the extremes.  That helps explain why science tells us, over and over, that in typical cases children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. And yes, that even applies where the issue is parental substance use.

If studies really aren’t enough, just look at what happened as a result of the Trump Administration child separation policy at the Mexican border.  Yes, unlike Donald Trump, child welfare agencies have good intentions.  But that doesn’t matter to the child.

That’s another lesson O’Neill has not learned.  O’Neill loves to invoke the latest trendy buzzwords about child trauma.  But she doesn’t seem to know that you can’t fight trauma with trauma.  Among the very worst traumas for children is being separated from their families.  Yet while O’Neill recognizes this trauma when it involves returning children from people she likes –  foster parents – she never acknowledges the trauma of that initial removal from birth parents. It’s almost as if she believes children’s brains get a “mulligan” and somehow that first removal doesn’t count.

All of this harm occurs even when the foster home is a good one.  The majority are.  But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than generally realized and far higher than in the general population.  Multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.  The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.

But even that isn’t the worst of it.  The more that workers are overwhelmed with false allegations, trivial cases and children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find children in real danger.  So they make even more mistakes in all directions.  That’s almost always the real reason for the horror stories about children left in dangerous homes.

None of this is inevitable. All New Hampshire officials and legislators really needs to do is look at the few places that are, relatively speaking, models, including unlikely places such as Alabama.  Then they’ll see that O’Neill has it backwards.  They’ll find out that you can’t have child safety without family preservation.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org

Comments are closed.