CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Grandparents will get preference in child-custody cases involving drug or alcohol abuse under a New Hampshire law, a first in the country.
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed the measure Tuesday. It goes into effect next year and gives legal preference to grandparents seeking custody or guardianship of children whose parents cannot care for them because of addiction or abuse.
It also makes it harder to take a child away from the grandparents once they gain custody, requiring that a judge base their decision on what is in the best interest of the child. Under the new law, grandparents also will be informed about the state resources available for guardians and children and their care.
Republican Rep. Mariellen MacKay, who authored the legislation, said she hopes parents reluctant to get treatment for a drug problem because they fear losing custody of a child will now be more likely to get help.
In crafting the bill, she said, "We also led from the perspective of the family. This could be a family decision or should be a family decision. If mom or dad has a substance abuse issue, shouldn't they be concentrating on themselves and getting healthy? This way, they won't have the fear of what's happening with my child, will my child be OK."
MacKay said she often heard that grandparents wanted a voice, some legal standing, regarding the fate of their grandchildren when they are no longer properly cared for because of drug abuse. She said the law is aimed at giving grandparents preference over foster care.
"They wanted to be heard and we achieved this," she said.
New Futures, a statewide health policy and advocacy organization, welcomed the measure.
"Not only will the passage of this bill support families suffering from the current and overwhelming opioid epidemic, but it will also prevent future substance misuse in the state by providing children with a source of stability," said Rebecca Woitkowski, New Futures early childhood policy coordinator. "The stability and support grandparents provide to children in crisis can help to mitigate adverse childhood experiences ...."
New Hampshire has one of the highest per capita death rates in the nation due to drug overdoses, and the state's child protection division says it has seen an increase in child abuse-and-neglect cases related to substance abuse.
Last year, nearly 500 people died from drug overdoses in New Hampshire; many were in their parenting years and may have left behind children, experts say. Among recent drug-related cases, a Concord boy, whose parents were charged with exposing him to methamphetamine when he was 2, died last year; and a pregnant woman got a heroin injection as she was going into labor.
According to the Division for Children, Youth and Families, nearly 470 babies were born exposed to drugs last year — about one every 19 hours — compared to 367 in 2014. In response, the state has drawn up new policies requiring greater intervention when infants and toddlers are at risk.
Child protection workers will be required to conduct at least four face-to-face visits in cases involving substance-exposed infants and at least three face-to-face visits amid child abuse-or-neglect allegations involving substance use. Workers will be required to gather information about the family history of substance abuse and the child's medical care and will implement safety plans to prevent potential harm to the children.