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Child Advocate: More Funding For At-Risk Families Could Have Helped Avert Tragedy in Derry

Department of Human Health and Services

New Hampshire’s newly appointed Child Advocate says an apparent murder-suicide involving a father and his 6-year-old son in Derry signals the need to fund supports for at-risk families, especially after a review of state records revealed that the father himself made multiple calls to child protective workers for help.

Moira O’Neill, who recently took over as the Director of the Office of the Child Advocate, says child protective workers received at least eight calls about the Edmunds family between February 2015 and June 2017. Several of those calls, she said, came from Matthew Edmunds, who was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning alongside his son, Preston, inside their home last month. There were no open cases about the family at the time of Preston and Matthew’s death, she said.

Edmunds reported feeling overwhelmed by family conflicts, O’Neill said, and was having trouble managing Preston’s behavior problems, which had at times jeopardized his spot in childcare. The family also lost a son who was the same age as Preston in 2009, after the boy reportedly fell through a patch of ice on an in-ground swimming pool. 

But in all of those calls for help, O’Neill said there never appeared to be any sign of abuse or neglect, so each of the cases was dropped after an initial investigation or screened out without any investigation at all. In fact, O’Neill said Edmunds was praised for recognizing that he needed more support and taking steps to seek it out.

“The dad was always described as a really protective dad. He was well-bonded with his son. He had a good relationship,” O’Neill said. “[Caseworkers] had extensive conversations with him, whether from emails or phone messages, and he was often saying that he needed help. He said that he felt overwhelmed. He said that he had a lot of problems with family conflicts and he was having trouble dealing with it.”

But there was little the state could do to assist him in the absence of any apparent risk to his son’s safety, she said.

“This was, in my mind, a picture of a dad who was spiraling,” O’Neill said. “By asking for help he was interpreted as having strong parenting skills. Because that's what you do. You ask for help. The problem was, he never got it.”

O’Neill says she hopes this case serves as a wake up call to legislators about the importance of restoring funding to these services, after lawmakers opted to cut that money from the state budget in recent years. A lack of those support services was highlighted as a serious deficiency in the state’s child protection safety net as part of an outside review conducted last year, in the wake of several deaths of children who were at one time under the state’s care.

Several bills to restore such funding are on deck this session. O’Neill says she plans to testify about the importance of these efforts and to encourage others to do the same.

“It's a terrible tragedy and I respect the loss of the family's experience with this,” O’Neill said. “We owe it to Preston to really look at this and say what can we do to make this better, what can we do to avoid another death or to avoid more despair in families.”

Following O’Neill’s report on the situation, Gov. Chris Sununu echoed her calls for more services to help avert future tragedies, issuing the following statement: 

“The preliminary findings released today by the Office of the Child Advocate detail a tragic and potentially avoidable situation Throughout the past year, I have visited those on the frontlines at the Division of Child Youth and Family who stressed the importance of voluntary and prevention services being made available. I heard their concerns and made the restoration of these services a key priority of mine this legislative session. Those proposals are making their way through the legislature, and I look forward to them reaching my desk.”

Casey McDermott is a senior news editor at New Hampshire Public Radio. Throughout her time as an NHPR reporter and editor, she has worked with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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