New Hampshire Sued Over Treatment of Foster Youth with Mental Health Issues

 The state is still relying heavily on group homes as opposed to placements with families, especially for children aged 14 to 17.

The state is still relying heavily on group homes as opposed to placements with families, especially for children aged 14 to 17. Shutterstock

 

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Civil and children’s rights groups allege that the state has been negligent in its treatment of older foster youth and those with mental health issues.

Teenagers and older children with mental health issues are being mistreated by the New Hampshire foster care system, a new lawsuit from several advocacy groups alleges. 

The state isn’t doing enough to ensure 14- to 17-year-olds have foster family placements as opposed to putting them in group homes, something that puts them at “severe risk of dangerous and tragic outcomes,” the lawsuit says. 

These teenagers have “experienced the trauma of being separated from their families and removed from their homes” and face mental health issues that aren’t being treated when they’re in group settings. Advocates say that state officials are “warehousing” the children instead of providing them with mental health care and homes with adequate resources to care for them. 

In addition to these allegations, the lawsuit says that older children in foster care are denied access to legal representation, a violation of their constitutional rights. The lawsuit asks a judge to step in and mandate reforms to the state foster care system, as well as appoint a federal monitor to provide oversight of the system.

The suit names Gov. Chris Sununu, along with the heads of the state Department of Health and Human Services, the Division for Children, Youth and Families, and state Medicaid Services, as defendants. The Disability Rights Center of New Hampshire, along with the ACLU of New Hampshire and the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights, is leading the effort.

“The teenage years are difficult for many children, but they are exponentially more challenging for children who have been removed from their parents due to allegations of abuse or neglect,” said Karen Rosenberg, senior staff attorney at the Disability Rights Center. 

“By unnecessarily institutionalizing older youth who could receive mental health treatment and supports in their communities and live successfully with family members or with foster families, New Hampshire unlawfully deprives children in its care of the community-based services and family placements they need to grow into successful adults,” Rosenberg added

Sununu decried the lawsuit in a statement on Tuesday that took aim at the involvement of Children’s Rights, which he called “a special interest group … which preys on child protection programs across the country.”

“While some states have issues they need to address, here in New Hampshire, we have made more progressive reforms to our state’s child welfare system than any administration in history,” he said. “They are looking for attention for themselves, and their legal maneuverings will bring our progressive reforms to a grinding halt.”

Children’s Rights also sued the state of Maine this week over their foster care system. In that lawsuit, the group accuses the state of failing to properly administer psychotropic drugs to children in foster care, causing the children to suffer from drug side effects like anxiety and irritability. 

Maine, along with New Hampshire, was one of five states that came under the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2018 for treating a significant number of the children in foster care with psychotropic drugs.

New Hampshire has made strides recently to improve their foster care system. In April 2020, the state created a stipend program for families who adopt older children and those with specialized medical needs. The same month, the state extended foster care to youth up to 21 years old.

The state is still relying heavily on group homes as opposed to placements with families, especially for children aged 14 to 17. In 2019, of the approximately 545 children between these ages in the state’s care, 70.3% were in congregate care facilities, compared to the national average for this age group at 31%. For older children with mental health issues, that number rose to 90.5% in New Hampshire, compared to the national average of 39.8%.

The lawsuit says those numbers need to come down significantly in order to ensure better outcomes for youth in foster care. Advocates are also seeking three main structural changes to the system: the right to legal counsel for children in dependency proceedings, the use of community-based rather than institutional services for young adults’ needs, and the creation of a case planning system that takes into account housing options, mental health treatment, and services for youth transitioning out of the foster system

Shereen White, senior staff attorney at Children’s Rights, said that the “physical, emotional, and mental harms associated with placement in congregate settings” can lead to homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, and low educational attainment. Independent studies from the past few decades have consistently shown that children fare better in the long-term if they are placed in private family homes instead of group facilities. 

“Too many older youth in New Hampshire are subject to unnecessary warehousing by a state system that prioritizes institutionalization over family and community,” White said. “The risks of serious harm to these youth are even more imminent during the Covid-19 public health emergency, because social distancing is virtually impossible in group care facilities.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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