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A Q & A with N.H.’s new Child Advocate Cassandra Sanchez

New Hampshire State Child Advocate Cassandra Sanchez.
Cassandra Sanchez
New Hampshire State Child Advocate Cassandra Sanchez told NHPR: "It's so important to have the buy-in of the state agencies to want to make changes and improvements to better services for children across the state."

All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with New Hampshire’s recently appointed Child Advocate Cassandra Sanchez about her new role, her goals and the challenges she may face. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Peter Biello: The role of the Child Advocate is to work with the state to ensure the best interests of children in the state are being met. What does that mean in practice for you?

Cassandra Sanchez: Yes. So in practice, that means collaborating with these state agencies. It's so important to have the buy-in of the state agencies to want to make changes and improvements to better services for children across the state. So for me, coming in, especially being a new face to New Hampshire, it's really taking the time to get to know what already exists, what's working well, and meeting the heads of the agencies down to the people who are on the ground doing the work, get to know from their perspective how they feel their services are working to meet the needs of children in the community, and then through the relationship-building, challenge them to think a bit differently and to be open to making changes to enhance what they're already doing, to better meet the needs of kids in the community.

Peter Biello: And do you think they will be open to making changes? And the reason I ask is because your predecessor, Moira O'Neil, was recently in the press talking a little bit about how she found it challenging, that there was a perceived lack of collaboration from state leaders like the governor and the Health Commissioner, who she found to be dismissive of the flaws in state care that she pointed out. Do you feel like you'll have buy-in from those folks and that they'll be willing to make changes that you recommend?

Cassandra Sanchez: I truly hope I do. I have had the opportunity to meet some of them already. Not all of the players quite yet, but it's only been a short [time]. But in that time frame, I have been able to meet, I've reached out and they have been responsive. They're open to starting fresh. A fresh step. So, I'm hearing a 'yes,' and I'm excited to see what that will bring when I actually approach it. I do understand that Moira had some struggles. She's been very open and honest with me about her difficulties in the role. And there is just a wonderful staff in this office as well that has done a great job building relationships outside of Moira's relationships with some of these important stakeholders. They as well have had the opportunity to build relationships. So, I'm working very closely with them to meet everybody, and I'm very hopeful and optimistic that it will be a positive experience.

Peter Biello: New Hampshire's had a number of high-profile cases involving children in the past few years. Harmony Montgomery is a recent example. We've heard of many cases of abuse at the Youth Services Center. Will it be part of your job to advise state agencies on how to better serve families and young people?

Cassandra Sanchez: Yes, absolutely. That's a core aspect of this role. I do appreciate the opportunity to bring in expertise from an outside state. I think that's good to have and to look at what other states are doing that are working well. It's a nice, fresh perspective for the state to have.

Peter Biello: You come from Massachusetts, I should add.

Cassandra Sanchez: Yes, yes, correct. I am from Massachusetts. So it's a nice perspective to bring into the state. And it sounds like people are open to hearing what was working well there and they are open to also looking at data and research that exists from other states across the country for what is working well in regards to child welfare and placement and residential settings and treatment of mental health and behavioral health for children. So, I'm hearing people willing to make some changes. I'm hearing that the state agencies, outside of the difficult relationships that Moira had, I'm hearing that there were also some positive relationships in that mix as well. One of them specifically being with the director of [the Division for Children, Youth and Families], and they really did work in a collaborative way to address some of the concerns, of course, to speak about the Harmony Montgomery case and also other issues that come up through reporting of concerns of children in the residential facilities. So they've already been doing that work. So I see my ability to step in and continue what they were building on.

Peter Biello: You have a background as a social worker. How will this inform the way you approach this role as Child Advocate?

Cassandra Sanchez: Yes, I do. I think it brings a different perspective. That's actually, I believe it's going to be very helpful to my role. I see buy-in from social workers when they hear that I had the experience, that I had my feet on the ground doing the work, that I understand what they're dealing with day to day and the difficulties that they've faced. And I also would like to take some of that to help educate the state about what it is that the workers are doing. I think one thing that may be a misconception is that we really do all have the same shared goals for children. We all want to see children in the state treated well, taken care of and their needs being met. Of course, there's difficulties that state agencies face that our office can advocate for sometimes at the level of the agency, sometimes at the legal level, and in changing laws and in the legislature. So I'm looking forward to having opportunities to do that. I have spent some time in the legislature already in my first few weeks. But I think bringing in that perspective of doing the work makes it easier for those collaborations to happen and helps me educate the state because I do think there's a lot of misconception in the state that the child welfare agencies aren't looking out for children's best interests. That's absolutely within their mission. That's within our mission as well. But a lot of times they have difficulties getting there. And so that's where our collaboration comes in and is helping make sure they have the tools that they need to do the job to the best of their capacity.

Peter Biello: What do you understand to be some of the challenges New Hampshire is facing when it comes to the welfare of children?

Cassandra Sanchez: One of the number one challenges that I'm hearing across the board and it's not just a New Hampshire problem, it's a problem across the entire country is workforce. We hear that all the time in business and in social work. And it's everywhere. It's across the board right now. And workforce is a problem. When we don't have enough social workers and there's not enough staff in residential, children aren't getting the care that they need. They're not getting the attention and the time that they need. So that is something that the state is very well aware of. It's something that they've been working to increase. There's initiatives going on across the state and trying to engage some of the universities in working students through the system to move into these jobs. So I think there is some good work being done, but there is more that we need to do to enhance the workforce and provide those services.

Peter Biello: And what do you hope for when it comes to this position? What are your biggest hopes for what this office can accomplish in New Hampshire?

Cassandra Sanchez: My biggest hope, really, is collaboration in building that relationship, but also ensuring that trauma-informed care is at the focus. There's a lot of research and a lot of data and developmental psychology that speaks to trauma and the impacts on development for children and how it really, it will impact them the rest of their lives. And so if we have staff that are educated and aware of how to provide trauma-informed care and get involved early onset to reduce those long term effects for children, that's when we're going to see better outcomes across the entire state, and especially when children are aging out into adulthood. We're going to see the impact there. So I think it's so important to spread the education, to make sure people are really focusing and using an educational approach. And developmental psychology is at the head right now when you're talking about child welfare or child protection and just child development in general. So our office is leaning into the research. They always have. I think Moira had a wonderful background in education and she was able to bring that to the position and I have a similar background and understanding. So I also want to bring that and I do want trauma care to be at the forefront. The other main area of focus for me is helping to support the preventative care. There's a lot of services out there that are reactive. Something happens and then they're coming to provide a service in response. And so much about positive mental health comes from that preventative work. And I know the systems of care is working very diligently right now to get some preventative care off the ground and running. So we're very supportive of them in that process as well.

Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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