The Office of Child Advocate is a watchdog agency created last year by lawmakers as part of a larger effort to reform the state’s current child protection system.
Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Moira O’Neill, the new director of the office, about her plans for the agency.
(Editor's note: This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)
First [let's] kind of get an introduction I think to your moving here to New Hampshire. What's your background in child advocacy?
Well this is a brand new office here in New Hampshire. But for me, it's an area of expertise that you probably rarely see. I think New Hampshire makes the 13th state that has an office like this, with this kind of authority.
And the idea here is to have a separate, overlooking agency that's not part of the integral agencies?
This office is going to have oversight over child welfare, child protection, juvenile justice, all of the services provided by the Department of Children, Youth, and Families. So I did this very similar work for 11 years in the state of Connecticut. And then while I was there, I went back to graduate school and ended up doing a doctoral dissertation on these offices, because they seemed to me to be a phenomenon that wasn't really well understood. This classical model, which is what we will make out of the Office of the Child Advocate, is indeed absolutely separate. It must be independent from any other agency. We answer to no one. We are independent. We are an organization that will be able to take complaints and look at what's going on without having any allegiance to any particular agency.
What does that model offer as far as protections are concerned for children?
So the role of the advocate is to hear complaints. I often think of this as sort of an expression of the First Amendment right to bring complaints against your government, to speak out. And so when government is intervening on behalf of a child, there are times when they may not do their job, or it may seem like they're not doing their job. So people have to have a place where they can go and say hey this is not helping. This is not helping this child. This is not helping me as a child. And I think that you know where the law is supposed to protect me, it's not. The Child Advocate will hear this complaint and then look at it. What is the law? What are the regulations? What is supposed to be happening, and is it happening? And oftentimes it is, but then other times it may be that it's not going well. It's still within the law, but maybe the law needs to be changed. And so over time as the Child Advocate receives complaints from folks, they'll be able to sort of piece together trends to see maybe what's working and what's not working. It's really like a quality assurance mechanism to make sure that hey maybe the agency isn't interpreting the law in the best way, or maybe the law just needs to be changed.
The state's Division of Children, Youth, and Families, DCYF, has been criticized for its handling of child abuse cases in recent years. I'm sure you're aware of this. It's been under scrutiny since two toddlers under its supervision were killed in 2014 and , and an independent review of that agency concluded that it often fails to help children who are at risk of being harmed. How does what your office is going to be doing help that? How does it change that?
Yeah, and I do have to say you know New Hampshire is not unique in that. Unfortunately these tragedies do happen in a lot of states. In fact, I just mentioned to you that there's about 13 similar offices now. All of them were established because of child deaths. And so that's that's the response to it.
I mean we already have, here in New Hampshire, the child fatality review process. So they look at the deaths of children and try to figure out: is there something that could have happened that might have prevented this death? I call them social autopsies where you're sort of looking at, you know, what do we know about this child? Where were there opportunities that we could have helped the family to prevent this? And so the child advocate will be a part of that process as well. But there is actually some complaint in the industry about always having these kinds of offices established just based on the deaths of children. In fact the deaths of children who should be under supervision are very rare. I mean two seems like a lot. Any amount of death is too much, but there's a whole lot of other stuff that's happening that we should be paying attention to. So the office of the Child Advocate will be a mechanism to make sure we don't get to that point.
So you're saying there's other abuses up to, but excluding death, that we should be paying a lot more attention to as well?
Sure. You know there's a huge initiative right now to reform child welfare here in the state of New Hampshire based on those deaths, but also based on looking and seeing that casework wasn't happening. There were a whole bunch of referrals for suspected child abuse and neglect, and cases weren't opened or weren't fully investigated, and then they were closed. So all of that stuff has been responded to. Things are changing. The Child Advocate would be you know way out ahead watching for that. We've just had all of this reform. They're hiring new people. They got all sorts of new administrators in place. So now is the time that we can sort of step back and see how is it changing? What are the outcomes now? Are we doing better? Which I would imagine we are, but what more do we need to do so that we can get much better outcomes going forward?
I want to ask you about DCYF, and we've talked about this here on this program for years now: burnout, turnover, staffing shortages. Obviously a lot of people care very deeply about what they're doing, but maybe are just overwhelmed, especially with the opioid crisis that's been happening. Is that something that your office will get involved with at all on that level [that] staffing level?
Yeah. You know it's a really hard job. It just is a hard job. So the Child Advocate will have cases on individual kids, and could even solve problems for individual kids and go home at the end of the day. But quite frankly, that's inefficient to just focus on individuals as you go along. It will make much more of an impact, and the citizens of New Hampshire will get their money's worth out of creating this agency, if we bring them all together, and as I said before, look for trends in what's going on. So a lot of that obviously is going to be what is staffing like, how our case workers [are] supported. Now, the legislature provided resources so that they could hire more case workers, but [just] spending money and hiring people is never the answer. Those caseworkers need very careful training. They need supervision, and by supervision I don't just mean someone watching over you, I mean someone who's giving guidance constantly, checking in, seeing where those caseworkers are, and what other supports they need, and making sure they understand what's going on.