New legislation seeks to shore up child protections

Staff photo by DAMIEN FISHER On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Sununu signs into law three bills that will increase staffing and services at the Division of Children, Youth and Families.

NASHUA – The New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families is getting millions of dollars in funding to hire more child protection workers, bring back voluntary services for families, and increase funding for foster families under a trio of bills Gov. Chris Sununu signed Tuesday in Nashua.

Sununu championed spending money on reforming the division after the deaths of two children under its care, and the sexual assault of two other children also under the agency’s supervision. An independent review of DCYF completed in 2016 found the agency failed to protect children from the risk of harm.

“Nothing else really matters when it comes to the safety of the kids,” Sununu said.

Combined, House bill 1103, Senate bill 590, and Senate bill 592, address some of the serious concerns at the division. For years staff members have been unable to keep up with the influx of cases, leaving many open for longer than called for under division policy. Many cases were being closed as “unfounded” despite there being facts to support abuse or neglect, the independent report found. This was in large part due to the lack of staff and resources.

The bills bring back voluntary services for families who are in contact with state officials as a way to head off potential problems. Sununu said this will allow the agency to be more proactive, rather than totally reactive.

Christine Tappan, who started began as DCYF’s new director last year, said the agency is starting to get back on its feet after years of problems. The bills signed Tuesday are a big part of that change, she said.

“We wouldn’t be on this road to turning things around the way that we are if it weren’t for our legislative partners,” Tappan said.

Tappan thanked New Hampshire state Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, who has been working on DCYF issues for years. Carson praised the agency workers who go directly work with children to help them.

“It’s not an easy job, and we in the Legislature know it’s not an easy job,” Carson said. “A few years ago, DCYF was in a difficult place.”

Sununu said making changes at the division is about more than just money.

“The legislature finally said, failure is not an option,” Sununu said.

The reforms were sparked by some harrowing cases in which the division was involved. In November 2014, Nashua’s Brielle Gage, 3 was brutally beaten to death by her mother, Katlyn Marin. Marin is serving a prison term of 45 years-to-life, as she appeals her second-degree murder conviction. Marin was investigated 10 times by DCYF in the years before the murder, including an instance in which Brielle Gage had her leg broken.

In 2015, Sadie Willot, a Manchester toddler, was killed by her mother, Katlin Paquette. Paquette was also the subject of DCYF interventions. Paquette pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is serving a 21-to-42-year prison term.

Earlier this year, DCYF agreed to pay the adoptive family of two girls $6.75 million, the largest individual settlement in state history. The division worker in charge of the case for the two girls, then ages 4 years old and 18 months, allowed the biological parents overnight unsupervised visits with the children in 2013, despite knowing about an active police investigation into the biological father over sexual abuse allegations. The biological parents were later found to have brutally sexually assaulted the girls, video recording the rapes. The couple confessed to police and they are both now serving life in prison.

Damien Fisher can be reached at 594-1245 or dfisher@nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_DF.