This summer, the National Conference of State Legislatures convened its first-ever child welfare fellowship for state-level politicians. The year-long initiative, funded by national grant maker Ballmer Group, is aimed at raising the level of political leadership among state legislators on family preservation, foster care and adoption in the state house.
One legislator among the inaugural group of 21 is Rep. Kim Rice (R), a leader on family issues for the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Rice chairs the Children and Family Law Committee, and sits on the Commission to Study Grandfamilies and the advisory board for the Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).
We spoke with Rice about the fellowship, the opioid crisis, and how federal child welfare reform will affect New Hampshire.
How did you get interested as a politician in child welfare and family issues?
I ran for office to enact family court change. My husband went through the family court system. He had his kids 60 percent of the time, by the time he was done he was an every-other-weekend father, and there was never an allegation of abuse or neglect.
I ran because I wanted to see a shared parenting bill. And I believe that part of the problem with this opioid problem is, where are the fathers? Have they been pushed out? Because I don’t know how anyone expected my husband to be an effective father four days a month.
Have opioids had a big impact here, on child welfare?
The number of terminations of parental rights has doubled in this state [in less than five years].
It’s the opioid crisis. So that, to me, that was appalling. That breaks my heart, and I’m going to tell you why. I’m a recovered alcoholic. I’ve been clean and sober for many, many years. What got me through it was my kids. I just can’t imagine that it can help someone to sobriety when you take away the best reason to get there.
You are in the first class of NCSL’s child welfare fellowship for state legislators. What was your experience like at the first meeting this summer?
It went really well, very informative. The best part about meeting with legislators from around the country is you get to pick their brains for ideas. One thing that I really liked, a gentleman from Denver brought up caseworkers and their mental well-being, their health.
As in, preventing burnout?
Right. And what they did to help retain caseworkers. So that’s something I want to bring back here, and I want us to see what we can do to take care of our caseworkers, who are really on the front lines. I’d love to see some peer support for them, some mental health service around PTSD. They see a lot of horrible things.
The turnover [among caseworkers] is horrible. I don’t have our latest numbers but I know we’re behind. We’re working really hard to make changes at the Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). We got them some money last year for more caseworkers, another attorney, the foster parent rate increased finally. I’m hoping to keep the momentum going this year.
How did the NCSL fellowship process work, how did you become a member of the group?
I filled out an application. I was really interested. My first gut reaction was, I really want to find out more about the Family First Act because we’re going to have to make changes to our statutes here to comply. So I really wanted to see the direction that was going in. And I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see they’re focusing on keeping families together. And if a child has to be removed for a while, at least getting them back to their parents. That for me is a big thing. Removing a child from their home is traumatic enough.
The two biggest pieces of Family First are the new funds for preventing foster care, and the limits on federal funds for congregate care. What’s your sense of how New Hampshire is positioned?
I know the division [DCYF] is digging into that. I think it’s going to make some big changes in New Hampshire. We finally got some funding last year to reinstate some voluntary services in the incentive funds, which had been out since I think it was 2012. So the only option they had was to remove a child. We were reactive instead of proactive.
My ultimate goal would be for people to look at DCYF as a resource, not as the enemy. As a place they can get help they need for their families. Because I think it’s so important for families to stay together. Of course, I know sometimes it’s not going to happen. But I would like to know the options are there, the tools these families need are there.
What are the legislative actions you think you’ll have to take to fit in with Family First?
We don’t have it yet. They’re working on that right now [at DCYF]. So I’m waiting on that.
If you are interested in reading more about federal child welfare and juvenile justice policy, read our annual special issue “Kids on the Hill: A Special Issue on Child Welfare Policy” by clicking here!