By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – A special legislative committee examining the family division of the Circuit Court heard its first testimony Tuesday about the system and what should be changed through law or funding.
It heard first from the perspective of child protection, including testimony from the state Division for Children, Youth, and Families and the Guardian ad Litem Board. Then it heard from the public.
Officials made suggestions on the need for increased staffing and training and discussed recent changes.
The public focused on judicial bias issues.
The Family Division of the state court system operates in 28 locations across the state in all 10 counties.
Cases include divorce and parenting action, child support, domestic violence petitions, guardianship of minors, termination of parental rights, abuse and or neglect cases, children in need of services, juvenile delinquency, and some adoptions.
The committee is comprised of five Republicans and five Democrats with its chair, State Rep. Mark Pearson, R-Hampstead, and vice chair Marjorie Smith, D-Durham.
Committee members include Republican state Reps. Joe Alexander of Goffstown, Lorie Ball of Salem, Katelyn Kuttab of Windham and Charles McMahon of Windham, and Democrats Alicia Gregg of Nashua, Judi Lanza of Goffstown, Patrick Long of Manchester, and Rebecca McBeath of Portsmouth.
This was the first of four public hearings scheduled by the new committee with the others set for May 9, 16 and 23 beginning at 9:30 a.m. in Rooms 206-208 of the legislative office building. It also plans to visit family courts and hear from experts. A committee report is due in November.
On May 9 the committee expects to hear from officials of New Hampshire Legal Assistance and the New Hampshire Bar Family Law Division.
Eleven years ago, a similar committee met to discuss the family court but there are differences, said Chairman Pearson.
He said there are public documents in the House Journal from March 21, 2012, with 27 grievance reports with seven unfounded.
While the committee had no ability to overturn the cases, it made recommendations against certain judges and marital masters by name and specific suggestions for legislation.
Pearson urged those who come before them to know what that meeting was about and to differentiate it from this legislative committee.
“We are not round two of that committee. We will not be reviewing court cases but certain slices of a case. Nor will we be making specific recommendations about certain individuals,” Pearson said.
The purpose of the committee is to look where changes in procedures and laws might be made.
“It is not to retry cases of citizens who disagree with the outcomes,” he stressed saying they should instead go to the appellate court for that relief.
He also cautioned about the limited subject matter that will be taken and the potential violation of orders.
“We do not know what may be confidential or under seal so filter out those items less you find yourself in difficulty,” he cautioned. “You are solely responsible for not bringing these matters forward,” he said.
Hurtful or embarrassing information to children will not be tolerated.
“Give us what we need so we can make the suggestions for change,” he urged.
The first up to testify were DCYF staff including outgoing Director Joseph E. Ribsam Jr., DCYF Chief of Legal, Regulatory and Legislative Affairs Beth Margeson and Dianna Baker.
Ribsam focused on the child protection aspect.
It begins with a hotline to report abuse https://www.dhhs.nh.gov/report-concern/report-child-abuse. He said the hotline number receives over 20,000 calls a year.
The query begins with what those allegations are, and if true would constitute abuse.
About 10,000 investigations are undertaken a year from those hotline calls, Ribsam said. A risk assessment is done and from that, only about 10 percent result in a substantive finding of abuse, and less than 1,000 cases go to court.
He said the times in court fit into two buckets: those issues which would include the removal of the children from the home or if there are some other limits to parental access.
Work over the past few years has shifted, he said, from casework to prevention or voluntary cases.
There has been a shift away from the court he said to proactive efforts.
“From where I sit, DCYF’s work has been positive,” he said.
Ribsam pointed to progress with a once-a-month roundtable held with all stakeholder parties to talk about how the process is impacting children and can be improved.
“From that level, it works quite well,” Ribsam said.
He said there are 280 DCYF positions and a 10 percent vacancy rate which is better than it has been, improved by salary increases and there has been a lot of effort to reduce casework.
The goal is for each worker to have about 10 or 12 cases whereas right now, it is closer to 20.
He said what might work better in the future include more access to a judge’s time, and Pearson said the legislature is working on that, referring to budget proposals to increase judicial staff.
He also said better support for parents would be of help and a pool of attorneys well educated to support the work.
If they qualify financially the court provides parents an attorney paid by the public, but the committee was told they do not receive a list of qualified attorneys.
Those cases where the parents pay for a private attorney can sometimes “go sideways” if the attorney is not familiar with the process, Ribsam said.
Family treatment was also discussed including a pilot program in Sullivan County paid for with federal dollars, and similar to drug court, where folks come together more frequently and there are really good outcomes, particularly for those parents struggling with substance abuse, Ribsam said.
It started taking cases about a year ago, he said, and was not aware of a report yet on how it is going.
“That will be fascinating to look at,” Pearson said.
GUARDIAN AD LITEM
It also heard from the Guardian Ad Litem program, with Ned Gordon of Bristol, a former senator, state representative, and member of the Guardian Ad Litem board https://www.oplc.nh.gov/guardian-ad-litem-board and retired attorney and judge.
In the 1990s as a senator, he suggested legislation related to guardian ad litems, taking it away from the courts and into the state Administrative Services Department which provides training.
Under the Guardian Ad Litem board you don’t necessarily have to be an attorney, he said, “Just common sense,” Gordon said.
The state has CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, who handle many of the cases in the state, and in divorce cases, it is not a mandatory appointment, he noted.
When the state had its financial crisis in 2008 it used to pay in divorce and parenting cases and that was very helpful and needed in many cases. But then, he said, the state decided it could no longer afford that.
As a judge at the time, Gordon said they were appointing too many GALs and the state was paying for that but now he said there are many cases in marital cases where one is needed but no funding and thus, no help.
“Why do you need a guardian ad litem,” he said, answering they are fact finders where one spouse might ask for primary custody based on allegations and the other spouse is saying that the reason is about other allegations ranging from support, violence, drugs, guns, and truancy.
Gordon said the state used to have a lot more GALs and could use more, though that was a situation when there were more cases.
He said the Guardian Ad Litem Board, seven members which has been working efficiently, is being proposed as a three-member advisory board, under the Office of Professional Licensure under Senate Bill 2, the governor’s version.
While that may not happen as the budget process continues, Gordon said he has a concern about that potential change.
Betty Gay of Salem, a former state rep who had previously suggested such a committee, said House leadership limited the breadth of the committee’s inquiry and was hearing primarily from state agencies and court officials while people who want to testify about their experience had come or were listening and were not being heard while missing work to be there “for their five minutes.”
Public testimony included that from Dana Albrecht, who started with 30 seconds of audio from Nashua family court public hearings about the judge and guardian ad litem who were “very good friends.”
He called it a conflict of interest. The allegation is that it was very profitable for the guardian ad litem irrespective of qualifications.
Robert Tanguay of Manchester also spoke about conflict of interest. He also said people are not getting hearings in the family court. He said he has not seen his children since 2022 when fictitious claims were made against him.
He complained that the NH Women’s Bar Association, which is not connected with the NH Bar Association, gerrymanders the courts and claimed one of the justices is a paid member of that lobby.
Tanguay said there are constitutional issues that he has encountered that the court is violating.
Divorced father Dale Savoy said giving children to single women has negative outcomes for children and said statistics bear that out.
“Look at the incarceration rates of single mother homes,” he said saying that the courts just assume, wrongly that he children are best placed with their mother.
He was asked to present documentation to back up his allegations.
“They are basically floundering,” he said of adult children because the mother is engaging them to stay at home and that would be different is a father was in the home.
“You’re just a guest in their life,” he said.
He said his case, seven years old and from Goffstown, was about his wife going to the court simply saying she was “scared.”
Randall Collier he is suing Belknap County Court for a violation of due process and argued that it was the wrong venue for a child custody case.
He said the family division of the circuit court should not be hearing custody cases but instead should be in an equity court.