By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday approved an omnibus child protection bill with additional safety and health provisions, legal safeguards, and earlier intervention services.
The plan includes the content of 12 separate Senate and House bills that would now be a single bill the Senate will vote on next week when it meets for the first time since mid-March due to the coronavirus.
The amendment to House Bill 1162 passed the committee unanimously.
The committee did not vote on an omnibus housing protection bill that would continue safeguards for renters and mortgage holders after a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures expires.
The proposal drew widespread opposition from financial institutions and from rental building owners and managers.
Senate committees are working on omnibus bills to address issues like transportation, healthcare and the state’s COVID-19 response as the interrupted session draws to a close.
The provisions of the child protection bill address a number of concerns raised about child abuse with school closings and stay-at-home orders, as well as long-standing issues like parental reimbursement for court-ordered services for juveniles.
After the vote, the committee chair Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, said there is nothing more important than protecting children.
“We often talk about the public health and economic impacts of the coronavirus in New Hampshire. However, one of the most pressing issues we will face as a state is the protection and welfare of our children,” said Hennessey. “For children living in abusive homes, the closure of our schools and after school programs meant their privacy and ability to disclose abuse was limited if not completely eliminated. As a Legislature, it is our duty to do everything in our power to protect our children.”
As the state reopens, lawmakers need to protect children and advocate for the resources they need to be safe and successful, she said.
She noted the amended bill clarifies adoption provisions, expands the authority of the Office of the Child Advocate, and puts in place health and safety programs for children exposed to substance use disorder, neglect, and abuse.
The bill would no longer require parents to reimburse the state for court ordered services and placements under the Child In Need of Services (CHINS) program, Child Protection Act, or child delinquency statutes.
Moira O’Neill, director of the Office of the Child Advocate noted one of the provisions would require the best interest of the child be the primary consideration in any court process under the child protection act.
The bill also expands the office’s jurisdiction over a broader range of agencies that serve children.
O’Neill said the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need to expand her office’s oversight.
“There were a number of children placed in residential facilities infected by the virus, but we were only able to monitor about 10 children,” O’Neill said. “All the others were placed in residential facilities by educational entities.”
She also praised the provision of the bill that would allow unmarried couples to adopt children.
“I’ve learned from children, there is nothing more important to them than family,” O’Neill said, “whatever it looks like.”
Concord Attorney Christine Hanisco said she was shocked when she and her partner tried to adopt a child to find out they had to be married.
Some of her clients have sought to confirm parentage have run into problems, she said, and she has had to tell them they cannot do what they sought to do under existing law.
“This bill seeks to modernize New Hampshire’s adoption laws,” Hanisco said “and provide more security for children.”
Michael Skibbie, policy director for the Disability Rights Center of NH, praised a section of the bill that requires children in an out-of-home court-ordered placement have legal representation.
He said legal representation for the child usually ends after a court order.
“The concern to my office is often when we are investigating abuse or neglect in treatment,” Skibbie siad, “there is no lawyer to call (for the child).”
There was no opposition to the bill at the public hearing.
The opposition did turn out for a bill to extend protections for renters and mortgage holders under the CARES Act and state provision under an executive order by Gov. Chris Sununu.
Under the current guidelines, renters cannot be evicted if they do not pay their rent, and banks may not foreclose on delinquent homeowners if they do not make their monthly payments.
But those protections will end in the future and Senate Majority Leader and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Feltes said his proposal would strike a balance between extending the moratorium after the state of emergency is lifted and doing nothing.
If the moratorium is lifted without protections in place, he said the housing market would be destabilized with evictions and foreclosures and that will not help anyone.
Under the provisions of the bill, there would be a six-month period after the state of emergency ends to allow landlords and renters to work out agreements to pay what is owed before an eviction notice could be filed.
During that period, rent could not be increased more than a tenant’s pro rata share of increases in property tax and utility costs.
Another provision would require a bank to inform a homeowner 30 days before beginning a foreclosure, that the person has a right to request a forbearance, and without any other agreement the forbearance would be monthly payments at the end of the mortgage.
The bill would also allow rooming and boarding houses to be a person’s primary residence, giving them certain rights under the law.
“We cannot afford to leave this session,” Feltes said, “without providing some modest protections for homeowners.”
Feltes said banks, especially community banks have “bent over backwards for homeowners and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic and have done a number of forms of forbearances.”
He said the proposal would not override those agreements, and he is not looking for a one-size fits all arrangement.
“Whatever the agreement we want to set a baseline,” Feltes said, “before you lose your home,” noting New Hampshire does not require a court hearing for a foreclosure.
But bank officials said the bill would give the banks and their customers less flexibility than they have now for negotiations.
Christy Merrill, president of the NH Bankers Association said the state’s banks stepped up before they were required to help businesses and homeowners with the pandemic.
She said banks large and small are offering forbearance programs now.
“This will impact what banks currently offer and we are concerned it will impact customers,” she said. The bill would mean less flexibility for both banks and customers, she noted.
Her concerns were reflected by representatives of credit unions and mortgage bankers. Kurt Strandson, of the Mortgage Bankers Association of NH, said the bill could conflict with federal regulations which will mean they will be in court and that will drive up costs for banks and their customers.
Matt Menning of Elm Grove Companies, a landlord and property management company, said deferring payments not only impacts the landlord, but also banks, insurance companies and municipalities. “It destroys the velocity of money in the economic system,” he said. “It crunches everybody’s budget.”
Menning said his organization would prefer a bill to establish a $50 million fund to help people having problems paying their rent.
“That would be a better outcome,” he said, “with people paying bills rather than deferring bills.”
He said his company is working with tenants to try to work out problems so they can retain their tenants, not lose them.
Nick Norman, director of legal affairs for the NH Renters Property Owners Association, said the entire financial burden of the pandemic is on the shoulders of property owners.
“A great number of tenants are abusing the system,” he stated. “They got their stimulus payment, but they did not pay the rent, they used it to buy TVs and cars, they are using it for a free ride.”
He was questioned by several committee members if he had proof, and he said landlords have told him tenants have said they are not going to pay their rent and there is nothing they can do about it.
“It’s more common than you think,” Norman said. “Some landlords have provided evidence.”
Elissa Margolin of Housing Action NH said there is a “perfect storm brewing for a very concerning eviction crisis.”
With many renters paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing, job losses and the end of the supplemental unemployment payments, she said, there will be a crisis when the moratorium ends.
She too advocated for a housing stabilization fund to help renters who cannot afford their rent due to the pandemic.
Hennessey said the amendment needs some more work and the committee will discuss the bill again Friday.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org