New Hampshire advocates, lawmakers question scope of child services review

CONCORD, N.H. — Advocates and lawmakers are questioning whether an outside review of the state’s child services agency will adequately examine what led to the deaths of two New Hampshire toddlers within a year.

Three-year-old Brielle Gage of Nashua died from blunt force injuries in November 2014, and her mother Katlyn Marin is facing charges for beating her to death. Twenty-one-month-old Sadence Willott died last September from a blunt force head injury, and her mother faces second-degree murder charges.

The state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families had been involved with both families, prompting Gov. Maggie Hassan to call for outside review of the agency after Willott’s death.

The review is now underway, but there’s no guarantee either of the high-profile cases will get intense scrutiny. Instead, the outside group conducting the review will examine 100 random cases in search of broad problems at DCYF. Hassan’s office says it has directed the organization, the Center for Support of Families, to talk to police chiefs and others involved in the Gage and Willott cases but that a full review can’t be conducted while the criminal cases are ongoing.

Hassan’s legal counsel, Mary Ann Dempsey, said it will be up to the Center for Support of Families to decide whether to look at the DCYF case files in those cases.

Not everyone is pleased. Members of a legislative commission designed to review child abuse deaths unanimously asked the governor to ensure the outside review looks into the Gage and Willott cases. Without it, they say, a full picture of issues and potential errors at DCYF won’t be possible.

“Our objective of this commission is to minimize and, hopefully one day, eliminate child fatalities,” Republican Sen. David Boutin said. “I understand that you can’t get access to criminal records, and I get that, but I think it’s going to leave a gaping hole.”

Likewise, Rus Rilee, an attorney representing the fathers of Gage and Willott in lawsuits, said it would be a “slap in the face” to his clients if the two cases are not fully examined by the outside reviewers. Rilee, who also represents the adoptive parents of two children who were sexually abused, is in the midst of a case at the state Supreme Court over whether lawsuits in child service cases should be public. If he wins, he plans to file suits against the state and the private organization of Court Appointed Special Advocates in all three cases.

The two deaths have prompted a wide-scale examination of DCYF and its practices. The legislative commission is looking into hiring an ombudsman to monitor the department, and administrators say they face severe staffing issues. At least four pieces of legislation to reform DCYF, including keeping records longer, are making their way through the Legislature.

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