|Gov. Chris Sununu|
At a ceremony in the State House on Tuesday, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed House Bill 629 into law. The change will take effect in 2018 and make New Hampshire the first state in the country to give preference to grandparents in guardianship cases related to substance abuse, lawmakers said.
Republican Rep. Mariellen MacKay filed the bill after hearing from grandparents that they weren’t getting a voice in the court process.
“That’s their child and their grandchild; who would know better?” asked MacKay of Nashua.
The state’s child protection division has recently seen a spike in abuse and neglect reports related to substance abuse. Nearly 470 babies were born exposed to drugs last year, slightly lower than the 2015 number, but still far above the 367 cases in 2014, according to the Division for Children, Youth and Families. Nearly 500 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, and experts say many were in their parenting years and may have left behind children.
Treatment providers say parents with drug addiction are sometimes reluctant to seek treatment out of fear the state will take away their children. MacKay hopes the bill helps address that issue by ensuring the child can remain in the family, but under the grandparents’ care.
“If you are the adult with the substance abuse issue, you want to be free to take care of yourself and not have to worry, ‘Am I going to lose the right to my child?’ ” she said.
It’s not clear exactly how many grandparents in the state are raising their grandchildren, but estimates put the number at around 10,000.
Denis and Rosemary Nugent of Antrim became guardians for their grandson after their son was incarcerated when his drug and alcohol use got “out of hand.” Though they didn’t have trouble in court, they said they support the bill to make it easier in the future for families like theirs.
“These children are like the forgotten victims of the opioid crisis,” Denis Nugent said. The couple’s grandson, also named Denis, stood at Sununu’s right side as the first-term governor signed the bill.
Later, the boy proudly showed his grandparents a blue pen commemorating the occasion.
In addition to the bill related to guardianship, Sununu signed into law a study committee to look at grandfamilies in the state. The group, including legislators, child protection workers and advocates, will seek to gather data on the number of New Hampshire grandfamilies, barriers they face and actions that could improve their situations. A report is due in November.
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N.H. becomes first state to give grandparents preference in guardianship cases