Bills aim to help children grow up safe and successful

The ongoing mental health, substance misuse, and child protection crises have taken a significant toll on New Hampshire's children and families, impacting all child-serving systems and placing increased pressure on the children's behavioral health system. These crises are disrupting children's stability and upending their lives, however resources are limited for voluntary and preventative services and the systems set up to support children remain underfunded and uncoordinated. It is our obligation to address these problems head on. In fact, the future prosperity of our state depends on our ability to foster the health and well-being of our next generation.

Recently, New Hampshire's Office of Child Advocate released its first annual report, highlighting the urgent need to prevent child abuse or neglect before it even occurs. The report also recognized that our children deserve a connected and coordinated system of supports and services working together to get them the right resources when and where they need them.

In 2016, New Hampshire took the first steps toward building a comprehensive System of Care for children's behavioral health when the legislature passed what is now RSA 135-F. The intent of this state law was to increase service effectiveness, improve outcomes for children with behavioral health challenges, reduce expensive out-of-home care, and efficiently coordinate care across systems.

Expanding access to home and community-based crisis intervention services (such as mobile crisis response and stabilization services) is an important next step to supporting the System of Care and promoting child well-being. Right now, there are long wait lists at Community Mental Health Centers and a lack of child psychiatrists, leaving children without access to services when and where they need them. This means, in many cases, a family's only options during a behavioral health crisis are to turn to law enforcement or an emergency department, neither of which can provide appropriate and trauma-informed behavioral health care for children in crisis.

Expanding access to mobile crisis response and stabilization services designed specifically for children will provide appropriate support and treatment to families in crisis, and will in many cases avoid costly, restrictive, and often unnecessary institutional care. This was highlighted not only in the Office of Child Advocate report, but also in New Hampshire's 10-Year Mental Health Plan and DCYF's Adequacy and Enhancement Assessment, as an effective way to support Granite State children and promote long-term child well-being.

Supporting a comprehensive, coordinated and trauma-informed System of Care will not only help to prevent maltreatment, but also mitigate the long-term impacts by providing children and families with access to interventions which are proven to be effective. To support families and reduce the long-term impact of maltreatment on children, lawmakers must also remove barriers to home visiting programs and fund a comprehensive system of family resource centers. Home visits reduce health care costs to the state and increase family self-sufficiency.

Child abuse and neglect is not only devastating and dangerous in the short-term, but also can have tremendous negative impacts on lifelong health and opportunity. Adverse childhood experiences, such as maltreatment, increase the risk of numerous health and wellness concerns in the future, including substance use and mental health disorders, heart disease, lowered educational attainment, unemployment, and even early death.

On Tuesday, Feb. 12, the legislature will hold hearings on two important bills that will help keep children safe and support children's behavioral health. SB 14 further integrates child welfare services with the children's behavioral health system, consistent with the recommendations in DCYF's Adequacy and Enhancement Assessment, to ensure all New Hampshire children and youth are getting appropriate support services where and when they need them. It also ensures all Granite State children and youth have access to mobile crisis services. SB 274 increases access to home visiting services to all Medicaid-eligible families. It is now up to our lawmakers to pass policies that give New Hampshire kids what they need to be safe and successful.

Click here to read the Opinion Editorial in Seacoast Online.