Parental rights bill will not serve our children well

Rep. Pat Long is the ranking Democrat on the House Children’s and Family Law Committee.

This year 2022 has been difficult for the children of New Hampshire. We have seen increased levels of mental illness, neglect and abuse in children as young as two years old, isolation, domestic violence, bullying on social media, food and housing insecurity, and other factors, not all of which can be linked to the COVID pandemic.

We heard about Harmony Montgomery’s harrowing research and horrifying revelations about minors detained at Sununu Youth Services Center. Unfortunately, the responses from the Legislative Assembly have not always aligned with the real issues facing us as a state.

Probably the most disturbing and hard to read story concerns Harmony, the 7-year-old girl who has been missing since 2019. As reported in the Massachusetts Office of Child Advocate Investigation Report on Harmony published last week, New Hampshire is one of 14 states that does not guarantee the right to an attorney for all children involved in addiction proceedings; Maine is the only other state in the Northeast without this guarantee. But rather than addressing this and other problematic areas of the law, “parental rights” bills have been proposed in the current legislative session that go in the opposite direction.

These bills are promoted by national organizations with extreme agendas. Their sponsors and supporters claim that parents have “lost so many rights” over the past few years and that these bills will restore them, but they offer no concrete proof of this. The real motive of the “parental rights” campaign seems to me to be to tear down government and public education, and to stifle diversity.

Last year it was the unsubstantiated claim that “critical race theory” was being taught in our schools; this year, it’s that the parents have somehow come out of the picture. These proposals will only bring our children and their families into conflict with each other, their schools and their communities.

One such bill proposed to make the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) an opt-in versus opt-out, to which all mental health, health care and advocacy organizations of state education objected because “opting in” would reduce survey participation. investigation, skew its accuracy and thereby jeopardize federal funding for mental health programs. Mental health centers and other nonprofit community organizations depend on these grants to help fund essential programs for at-risk children and teens.

Supporters of the YRBS bills say they don’t want their children asked about suicide, sex, alcohol and drugs because families should discuss them. They certainly should, but they often aren’t. What about the many children in our communities who come from dysfunctional families, violent homes, and homes with substance abuse? Who listens to them? Without this anonymous, aggregated data, we will miss the basic information we need about our children and their behaviors.

The Parental Rights Bill, HB 1431, will enshrine in NH law “the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing, upbringing and care of their minor children”. This will limit and in many ways inhibit the ability of schools, health care providers and other social service agencies to engage with children in need and/or in crisis.

This will tilt laws that already favor parental rights further in that direction, at the expense of children’s rights and safety. To put this in the context of the Harmony Montgomery case, the Parental Rights Bill will give her father, Adam Montgomery, back in prison, more rights than Harmony.

Here is a relevant quote from the Massachusetts OCA report on the Harmony Montgomery case:

“The key and central finding of this investigation and this report is that the individual needs, well-being and safety of Harmony have not been prioritized or considered on equal footing with the assertion of the right to her parents to take care of her in all aspects of decision-making by any state entity.

Our governor said of the Massachusetts report“Ultimately, it’s clear the system failed Harmony. The (Massachusetts) court didn’t put his needs first and that was very, very obvious. When you talk about a protection system of children and child protection, you protect the child that you make a priority and that did not happen in this case.

As a lawmaker, Manchester alderman, community volunteer, and advocate for children and their families, I know that the parental rights campaign will not serve the children of New Hampshire well, if at all.

If HB 1431 makes it to his desk, I sincerely hope that Governor Sununu will stick to his statement on the Harmony Montgomery report and veto the bill.

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