#childabuse | Next DHHS commissioner must be a relentless advocate for children

On Jan. 8, I attended the Executive Council’s public hearing for Gov. Chris Sununu’s nominee to become the new commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, Lori Shibinette.

Shibinette clearly and thoughtfully answered many questions from the councilors about her expertise as a nurse, her current job as CEO of New Hampshire Hospital, her prior job as the former deputy commissioner at DHHS and many pressing topics about public health in the Granite State. But there was a crucial topic where her answers felt surprisingly lukewarm: the protection of children who are the victims of child abuse and neglect.

DHHS is “the largest agency in New Hampshire state government,” according to its website, and “responsible for the health, safety and well-being of the citizens of New Hampshire.” It is crucial that the public have complete confidence that the next person who takes on this leadership role is committed to being a “relentless advocate” for the safety and well-being of children.

When Councilor Debora Pignatelli asked about the longstanding crisis at the Division for Children, Youth and Families, Shibinette initially paused in committing to using the role of DHHS commissioner to be a “relentless advocate for children.”

Pignatelli first raised this topic early in the hearing, before the council took testimony from members of the public. Pignatelli then circled back to the topic toward the end of the hearing, after public testimony.

The first exchange is as follows:

Pignatelli: “If you’re confirmed by this council, do you make a commitment to be a relentless advocate for children before the Legislature and with the governor and to advocate for increased funding if that’s what is needed or whatever you view is needed to help children?”

Shibinette: “I commit to being an active voice for all vulnerable populations that don’t have a voice, children included. I don’t want to not include people with disabilities, our elders, single moms . . . that live in an environment with domestic abuse. All of those vulnerable populations, I commit to advocating for them, kids included.”

The second exchange is as follows:

Pignatelli: “So here are a couple of things that we’ve heard about you today: You make decisions when decisions need to be made. You’re fearless. You charge into the fray. You work to solve the situation. You improve and enhance the quality of care. You understand policy implications and necessary funding. . . . Certainly you’ve brought those skills to the Merrimack County home and to the N.H. Hospital. So my question to you is, will you promise me, will you give me your word that you will bring those skills to DCYF and make the changes that need to be made there?”

Shibinette: “Yes. It’s not something I separate. Having difficult conversations and walking into the fray when a problem is in front of me, my solution is, ‘Well, let’s go talk to the client. Let’s go talk to the family.’ Any family that has ever tried to reach out to me, if you talk to them, they will always tell you that they get a call back and sometimes hour-long conversations because I believe to identify a problem, you need to go right to the source. . . . Yes, so I give you my word that my management style’s not changing. . . . Where it works is for our clients, it works for our constituents because they know that if they call or if they text or if they call the department, they’re going to get a voice on the other end.”

Pignatelli: “I’m going to hold you to that.”

Shibinette: “Please do.”

Shibinette’s first response to the question of whether she would be a “relentless advocate for children” was not an unqualified “yes.” Her hesitation is puzzling. No one had asked Shibinette to “not include” other populations of vulnerable New Hampshire citizens in the work that she would do to lead DHHS.

Rather, Pignatelli had raised a report from the Office of the Child Advocate from October 2019 that, according to the report itself, identifies “underlying systemic issues that, when addressed, will improve practice and service delivery to prevent injury or death.” This report about DCYF was the basis for discussing the needs of abused and neglected children, specifically, and Shibinette opted to minimize those needs and suggest that our most vulnerable children are just part of a list of groups that will require her support.

Interestingly, when she had been asked by Pignatelli about “women and women’s health care,” Shibinette had chosen to focus her answer on examples of specific populations of women that DHHS supports, such as single mothers, rather than leading with an assertion of unequivocal support for women’s comprehensive health needs, including access to contraception and safe, legal abortion. But when she was asked directly about a specific population – abused and neglected children – she chose initially to broaden the conversation to encompass “all vulnerable populations that don’t have a voice.”

Shibinette’s response in the first exchange about children with Pignatelli fails to recognize the unique problem of child abuse and neglect in New Hampshire. The failures of DCYF to adequately protect children have been widely acknowledged by many key stakeholders over a long period of time. For instance, in his second inaugural address, Gov. Sununu acknowledged the “crisis” at DCYF.

Tackling this complex crisis is a daunting task. It is also paramount for the next DHHS commissioner. That Shibinette had to be given more than one bite at the apple to pledge to step up to the task is not confidence inspiring. When I practiced law at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, my clients were almost all kids and teens who were involved with DCYF, the Division of Juvenile Justice Services or both. These kids – and the countless other children all around us in similar positions of risk, heartbreak and urgent need – deserve a public health leader who is inspired and fired up to be their “relentless advocate.” Taking on that role is a privilege and a position of honor, not a box to be checked off.

The Executive Council should continue to take a close and hard look at Shibinette’s nomination and, if she is confirmed to lead DHHS, to accept her invitation to hold her to her promise to make overdue change for our most vulnerable children.

(Leah Plunkett, a law professor, lives in Concord and is a candidate for Executive Council in District 2.)




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