GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — An omnibus bill to enhance state child protection laws and programs was signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu on Monday.
House Bill 1162 provides additional safety and health provisions, legal safeguards, and earlier intervention services.
A number of provisions in the bill address 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.
Senate Judiciary Committee chair who oversaw the crafting of the bill, state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, said the health and safety of children is the state’s most pressing issue.
“I am proud to have sponsored the amendment to HB 1162 which includes clarifying our provisions on adoption, expanding the authority of the Office of the Child Advocate, and putting critical health and safety programs in place for children exposed to substance use disorder, neglect, and abuse,” Hennessey said.
“Our children have been bravely navigating this pandemic alongside us. As we approach the fall and the beginning of the school year, they will be faced with a new set of challenges and as elected officials, we need to ensure they have the resources they need to be safe and successful.”
The bill addresses the legal representation of children in the juvenile justice system, redefines the best interest of the child in court cases, provides insurance coverage for children’s early intervention services, expands the family-centered early supports and services to children under three years old, creates the child abuse and neglect central registry, and establishes a kinship navigator program.
“This bill reaffirms our commitment and builds upon the progress we have made in reforming and enhancing the state’s child welfare system,” Sununu said in signing the bill.
He said the attorney general raised concerns about expanding the authority of the Office of the Child Advocate, but he is confident the Attorney General and Office of the Child Advocate can work to ensure the office operates within its legal limits and Constitutional requirements.
The bill expands the office’s jurisdiction over a broader range of agencies that serve children.
At a public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June, Moira O’Neill, director of the Office of the Child Advocate, 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.”
Disability rights advocates praised the bill at the hearing for requiring legal representation for children in an out-of-home, court-ordered placement after the order is issued.
The bill had little opposition. The bill passed the Senate on an unrecorded vote and was approved by the House on a largely partisan 209-119 vote.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.