Child Advocate Says State Needs to Communicate Better With Incarcerated Parents

May 17, 2019

Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

New Hampshire's Child Advocate, Moira O'Neill, is bringing awareness to how the state's child welfare system handles cases involving incarcerated parents.

O'Neill released a report last week outlining her concerns. Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley sat down with her to talk about how the Division of Children, Youth and Families could improve communication with incarcerated parents.

Your office released a report last week that outlines concerns about how DYCF is handling cases involving incarcerated parents. What have you been hearing from these parents about their experiences with the state's child welfare system?

Well, thanks for the question Rick. You know this issue briefing that we released about incarcerated parents is really sort of a demonstration of how the Office of the Child Advocate works. So we met with folks at the prisons and we were hearing some complaints from parents themselves. And then from those kinds of complaints we sort of looked at system infrastructure to see how are we able to support children and their families. And it became something that we thought we really needed to talk about.

So what we heard from parents originally were simple things like they're not able to be in contact with DCYF caseworkers. It's really complicated to have telephone conversations with people or to reach people because of all of the sort of the rigor of the routine and availability of phones and even the cost of making a phone call.

I think some people might not realize that some people that are incarcerated, they need to pay to use a telephone or email.

Yes, and the person receiving the call would have to pay or the prisoner has to pay for the return of the call. So it gets complicated. And so in that context, why do parents need to hear from DCFY? Why do they need to talk? Number one is if they need to arrange for visits or to hear even are there children in care. There are a lot of people in prison who aren't even telling anyone that they have children at home because they don't want their children to be taken into care. So it gets complicated.

And on the other side of that if someone is in prison for a while and children really need to move on to permanency for a new home, the courts aren't able to process that because parents have to be involved in those legal procedures. And so if we're not in contact, either a child is not able to maintain a relationship with their parent or the courts aren't able to move on to give the child permanency.

So these kids could be in limbo?

In limbo yeah. And the science on children's welfare is very clear that when kids don't feel they have a permanent home, there's a lot of long term impact on that. And the same thing with the science on the adverse childhood experience of having a parent incarcerated. There's a lot of work we need to do to be able to maintain a positive relationship with that parent if it's safe and appropriate so that the child doesn't feel the long term impacts of that.

This isn't just a few isolated cases. This is a pervasive, system wide issue?

It is. In general, it's difficult to communicate with people who are in prison. It's difficult to visit them. There's a lot of paperwork involved. You have to get advanced approval. You have to have notarized pieces of paper. You have to show up at the prison in the right outfit, because there's been problems with contraband. So they're very strict about that.

So the good news is that the Department of Corrections has got an infrastructure that they're building on so that there are telephones available, and we're getting them to negotiate maybe free phones when you're calling a government official like a DCYF caseworker. They are hopefully going to expand the availability of video chatting so that parents can visit with their kids.

The Family Connections Center at the prisons is a wonderful opportunity where they're providing parenting courses. They're educating parents about child development, and they facilitate video visits. They record parents reading books for their kids. And they have a wonderful summer camp where kids get scholarships to go to a local camp and then one or two days they get to spend with their parents. The problem is that they can't serve a whole lot of those kids. And so it's pretty limited who gets to see their parents in a positive light.

So do you see the state as providing adequate mental and behavioral health services for these children that have these incarcerated parents? You say it's getting better, but the resources aren't there.

Right. You know, I think that there's a lot of good intention around that. But you know that across the state we have the limitations on mental health and supportive services for kids. That's growing. There's a great bill that's going through the legislature, SB 14, that would expand the system of care for kids. And we're hopeful that that will get passed and supported by the budget, and that will help all kids. But I think with this particular population identifying them, letting people know it's okay to have open conversations about the fact that your parent is incarcerated that doesn't have any impact on you, and being able to support them until we know who they are, until we're able to have open conversations with DCYF after when they're involved, we're going to miss some of those opportunities.

What about parents that are transitioning back? They're coming out of prison and they want to be reintegrated with their children, with their family. What services are there for them?

Yeah, that's a great question. In fact, that's one of the issues that prompted us to look more deeply. I actually met a parent in the prison who was about to be let out of prison in about two or three weeks. He hadn't seen his kids in two years. So in two years, families have routines. People have roles in the family, and suddenly this person was going to show up and start shouting orders and try to reengage in relationships. You need preparation for that.

So we really were able to advocate for making sure that you have visits so they can meet each other, start to understand each other. More of the video visits would be helpful too. A kid sometimes will take whatever device they're using and walk around the house show them their room and show them their homework. I mean this is a way to sort of reintegrate in advance. And then you definitely do need some ongoing supports for the family in terms of helping the reintegration and understanding those roles.

So The Family Connections Center is applying for a federal grant to be able to work more closely with the family resource centers to provide supports for the families. So we're hoping that raising this awareness and having those kinds of supportive opportunities will help families reintegrate.

But right now there isn't a lot of that?

No there isn't a lot of that. Of course if DCYF is involved, they are making referrals to family resource centers and helping support families for whatever it is that they need. This is not to say that people in prison haven't done bad things. There's a lot of work that has to happen around that as well. But the majority of people, I mean the average length of stay in the main state prisons is like two and a half years or so. So obviously these are not really serious offenders, and they're also people who are very likely going to return home to live with their kids. They have to be prepared.

Again going back to resources, DCYF we know is overworked and understaffed. Do they have what they need to be able to implement new procedures and policies here?

I think they're starting to, and I think it started with something as simple as we were able to produce a list of names and telephone numbers of case managers in the in the correctional system. I mean those are things that people just didn't really have and they weren't hunting around and just not getting to it. If people can communicate directly, then that saves a lot of time. It makes it more efficient. There is legislation going around, and you've talked about it before, the increasing the number of caseworkers. That will be important. But always as we bring in more people to do the job, we also have to make sure that we have the information that they need that we are providing supervision, and support and training so that people understand what the process is.

Well, the legislature has passed a bill aimed at addressing the shortage of caseworkers in the state. This bill would add dozens of new employees to DCYF. Do you feel confident that the state will be able to fill those positions? I know the governor said he had some reservations. He wasn't sure they could fill all these positions.

Yeah, that's been a concern, and it came from last year where the legislature passed 33 new positions and it looked like they weren't ever filled. In fact, all of those positions were filled. And we just spoke with some folks at the district office down at the Seacoast. They said it was really wonderful. All of a sudden we had all the staff, like we were staffed okay, and things went well. But then there's a natural turnover. People move on to other positions in the agency and some people do leave, and so it looks as though positions aren't filled now because of that.

We feel pretty confident that as the numbers increase and just the commitment to make those positions available is going to raise morale, and it's going to extend the length of employment. And it should settle at some point. But we do caution that the numbers of people don't always make the difference. It's going to be the support for those caseworkers, the training, the supervision and making sure that they're able to do their jobs so that they'll stick around and help us out.

Well, we've heard from reform advocates on this show that say you know there should be a higher standard for requirements to become a case worker in New Hampshire. What's your opinion?

I really do wish that all caseworkers had master's degrees in social work. That's what a social worker is. The reality is that there's a workforce shortage here, and that's across the region. I mean it's not unusual that it's very rare that the master's degree positions aren't filled. We should definitely support our caseworkers to go on to advanced degrees. We should find ways that people doing the work are able to continue their learning and education. But I also think with a very strong training program, and more importantly really strong supervision and guidance, we should be able to do well by our families.

You've served as the child advocate for a while now. Do you feel like you've had access to everything you need from DCYF and the state to do your job effectively, to really assess the situation and to make a difference?

I think we're getting there. There's still a few areas where we're not able to get the information that we need. A lot of that is beyond DCYF. We we have a pretty good relationship with the DCYF. It's very respectful and in some ways even collaborative. But there is still a sort of a little discomfort with the oversight. That's sort of natural. No one really likes anybody poking around in their work that they do. We have a need for more information beyond DCYF in the Department of Health and Human Services to be able to speak with other people who would be resources to DCYF. We're trying to understand what's available in the system.

Is that from resistance? Is that from barriers being put up or record keeping not up to snuff? What is it?

Well, it's hard to say. I think that there's a sense that maybe we're overstepping their bounds when we're asking questions. But of course I would expect that any citizen of New Hampshire should be able to ask questions of public servants, and so we're working our way through that to try to understand what's available to DCYF. For the most part, we do have access to records. There are few things that are sort of kept away, and you know shared drives here and there that we don't have access to, and it's sort of hard to understand where that resistance has come from.

But you know piece by piece we're working through that and hopefully as we are able to develop a relationship that looks productive, as you're seeing that things are improving practice, then I think that will raise the level of the comfort with what we're doing and what we're asking. We don't ask for things that are frivolous. We try not to impose on people in their time. We know everyone's busy, and that can sometimes make more work when we're looking at things. And I think we've been quite sensitive to that.