CONCORD, N.H. >> A House committee is recommending changes to a bill that attempts to protect New Hampshire's youngest residents from the state's growing opioid abuse crisis — a response to concerns raised by obstetricians.
The bill passed by the Senate last month would add a parent's abuse of opioids or a baby's diagnosis of drug addiction to the state's definition of child abuse and neglect unless the parent was being treated for addiction. The goal is to allow the Division of Children, Youth and Families to get involved more quickly to protect children, but doctors said it could discourage drug-addicted pregnant women from getting prenatal care because they fear their newborn or other children could be taken away.
"The word on the street will be that DCYF will swoop in and take infants from their mothers shortly after birth if they're not in treatment," said Rep. Skip Berrien, a Democrat from Exeter.
Berrien and other members of the House Children and Family Law Committee on Tuesday recommended an amendment that would leave the definition of child neglect alone, but would give the division more leverage in court to use opioid abuse as evidence of neglect. Under current law, DCYF can't take actions such as overseeing supervision of children or placing them in foster care unless it can show actual harm from the drug abuse.
"The situations that this law would allow us to get involved in are those situations where we are conducting a protective investigation and a parent tells us 'I have no intention in engaging in treatment. I'm not going to get involved in treatment, I use when my children are in another room, I shoot up outside in the van,"' said DYCF Director Lorraine Bartlett. "We all recognize the significant lethality of that, and yet right now, we can't show harm."
The division's attorney, Byry Kennedy, said the amendment should alleviate concerns that the original bill somehow changed the state's law that requires physicians and others to report suspected child abuse or neglect. By leaving the definition of abuse and neglect alone, physicians remain under the same reporting requirements they've always faced, he said.
"These cases are coming up all the time," he said. "It's not a time to wait, it's not a time to study, it's a time to act."
After clarifying that DCYF would consider a wide variety of programs as meeting the treatment requirement, Rep. Patrick Long, a Manchester Democrat, agreed.
"Do we need more time? Maybe. But in the meantime, there are children out there suffering," he said.