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N.H. Legislative Leaders Call for Strengthening Child Advocate's Role


New Hampshire’s legislative leaders voiced support for strengthening the role of the Child Advocate, an office established in 2018 to reform the state’s child welfare system.

The call to action comes two days after the Office of the Child Advocate released its first annual report that proposes additional caseworkers and training.

The top Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate discussed their priorities on The Exchange on Wednesday.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse said the Child Advocate, Moira O’Neill, is directing more sunshine on long-standing problems.

House Speaker Steve Shurtleff said the Child Advocate should have more support, including being able to have more of a voice in court proceedings on behalf of children.

Senate President Donna Soucy said there is pending legislation to add caseworkers. She says the critical report from the Office of the Child Advocate, which oversees the N.H. Division of Children, Youth and Families, shows there is much more to do.

Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord.

“I think the big picture issue that we need to consider in the legislature is striving for the right balance between the rights of parents and the rights of protecting these children," Soucy said. "And I think that the report would suggest that at sometimes we’ve gone a little too far in supporting the rights of parents. I don’t think we want to go too far the other way. I think what we need to do is sort of recalilbrate the balance of those rights.”

Highlights from The Exchange

  • On marijuana legalization bill: Soucy and Shurtleff said the votes are likely there to pass this legislation this year. Last year, the House passed one legaliztion bill before killing it (Shurtleff voted against it; as Speaker, he will cast a vote only in the case of a tie. Morse is opposed. And he says the votes are not there in the House or Senate to override a promised veto from Gov. Chris Sununu. Hinch says he’s moved a bit on the issue. He noted he was once against medical marijuana.
  • Higher Education: Soucy acknowledged state funding for public colleges and universities is the lowest in the nation. She says the legislature must do more for affordability. “Currently,” she says, “we are at the bottom of the heap.” Morse said the state has done its job.  “I don’t think it’s a funding issue on our end. I think the debate should be on the system, making sure that they make affordable college.”
    House Speaker Dick Hinch
    Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR
    Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, is Minority Leader in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
  • Mental health: The four said implementing parts of the 10-year mental health plan will be important during the next budget cycle, including support for transitional housing and designated receiving facilities. The state is currently being suedover the practice of patients with psychiatric health issues being in emergency room boarding at hospitals. Morse maintains hospitals have balked and have not provided those designated receiving beds. “The same institutions that we need help from to solve the problem are now suing the state,” Morse said. “I think that’s part of the complication. We need to find a better way to help these people.”
  • Business taxes: Hinch and Morse oppose any changes to business tax rates, while Soucy says Senate Democrats want to keep the rates where they are -- and freeze any future decrease.

Watch a live-stream of The Exchange show

Dan is a long-time New Hampshire journalist who has written for outlets including Foster's Daily Democrat, The Citizen of Laconia, The Boston Globe, and The Eagle-Tribune. He comes to NHPR from the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he reported on state, local, and national politics.
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