CONCORD, NH – Three state reps who have championed children’s rights in the legislature were honored with the Jack Lightfoot Voice for Children Award at a child advocacy conference in Concord Friday.
Representatives Pat Long, Kim Rice and Mary Beth Walz, who all most recently stood up against House Bill 1431 that would have established a “Parental Bill of Rights,” were the recipients of the award that has been given out annually since the 1980s.
“We’ve never done this before. We’ve never given it to three people at once,” said Keith Kuenning, director of advocacy at Waypoint, which held the conference.
All three at different times have served as the chairperson of the Children and Family Law Committee over the past eight years, he said, and in that time have moved through important legislation in the name of children’s advocacy.
These legislators were a part of reinstating CHINS (Children in Need of Services) petitions and raising the age of maturity for minors in the court system back up to 18, he said.
“It’s been this beautiful, collaborative, bipartisan effort to always keep the best interest of the child at the center of what happens in the Children and Family Law Committee. And so because those three have really been the guiding star for that, we wanted to honor them all at one time,” Kuenning said. “When the committee succeeds, children succeed.”
Most recently these state reps voted against House Bill 1431, which villainized them to many that supported the bill, he said. The bill would have required schools to “establish a consistent mechanism for parents to be notified of information relating to the health, education, and well-being of their minor children.”
“I think there’s this assumption that all parents are great,” Kuenning said, but added “There are parents that are horrible. … You can’t say every parent wants the best for their child. You know how we know that’s wrong? We just spent five years rebuilding the DCYF system where children were being killed and abused.”
Kuenning said while most parents are good and want what’s best for their children, striking down House Bill 1431 ultimately protects children, especially the most vulnerable.
The bill would have required schools to “establish a consistent mechanism for parents to be notified of information relating to the health, education, and well-being of their minor children.”
“So if the kid would go to the school, to his coach, and say ‘my dad’s beating my mom’ that information would have to go back to the parents,” Kuenning said if the house bill had passed. “And the main concern was the LGBTQ community. This is a group of kids that have a very high suicide rate. A lot of them commit suicide. They feel isolated. They feel alone. So they reach out to people at school, they want to talk to them about it and if that information has to be shared immediately back to the parent.
“Where do those children have to go? We run a runaway and homeless youth program because a lot of these LGBTQ, once they are outed, are kicked out of their homes.”
Waypoint, formerly known as Child and Family Services, is a New Hampshire-based, nonprofit, human service agency. The Waypoint conference, which was titled “Face of Change: The New Age of Child Advocacy” was held Friday at the Grappone Center in Concord and focused on prevention and an understanding of how trauma impacts children and their mental health for the rest of their lives.
Taylor Bryan Turner, Assistant Regional Administrator for SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), was the keynote speaker.
Turner told her own personal story of how her childhood was impacted by a random shooting that injured her father and changed her life forever. She went on to describe the impact poverty, prejudice, homelessness, violence and the loss of a caregiver have on children well before they reach the point of the state intervening through DCYF.
“So we must all work together to ensure all people have access to the possibility of a higher quality of life,” Turner said.
She also said that in order to reduce the rising number of overdose and suicide deaths in the United States–the root of these problems– the country’s mental health crisis, must be addressed. One of the obstacles, however, is the lack of people working in the field, she said.
“The behavioral health workforce shortage is one of the key reasons that mental health needs go unmet,” she said. “Currently 37 percent of the U.S. population lives in a mental health workforce shortage area. Racial inequities are prominent within this issue. Racial and ethnic minorities make up more than 28 % of the nation’s population, yet less than 20 percent of America’s behavioral health workforce consist of ethnic or racial minorities.”
To address this severe shortage SAMHSA supports a Minority Fellowship Program to increase minorities in this workforce.
A panel of state leaders in child advocacy furthered the conversation and included Director of NH Division for Children, Youth and Families Joe Ribsam; Program Director with Endowment for Health Kim Firth; Executive Director for NH Housing Finance Authority Rob Dapice; and, Honorable Susan Ashley, deputy administrative judge for New Hampshire Circuit Court.
All of the panelists said prevention is key in improving children’s lives and keeping them out of the DCYF system.
Ribsam said most of the time when someone calls DCYF to report abuse, what they are reporting is not abuse or neglect, but really a report of a family needing support and resources. In the past DCYF could not get involved in reports that did not rise to the level of abuse or neglect, even to refer the reported family to services.
Now, because of a change in the law, DCYF can direct the caller or appoint a DCYF navigator to connect that family to the support they need, which could head off a crisis that would likely traumatize children in the family and later land that family in the DCYF system.
“Five years ago, before I got here, the law in New Hampshire actually prohibited DCYF from offering services to a family without bringing them to court first, which is crazy,” he said.
Ashley spoke to the exciting changes in the state’s family court system including that a court plan for a child now must be “trauma-informed” and sensitive to racial and ethnic issues.
The conference was also an observance of the 50th anniversary of Waypoint’s child advocacy program.
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