New Hampshire’s parental rights bill will not serve our children well

2022 has been a tough year for children in New Hampshire. We have seen increased levels of mental illness, neglect and abuse among children as young as 2, from 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 have read about the heartbreaking search for Harmony Montgomery, and awful revelations about juveniles held at the Sununu Youth Services Center. Unfortunately, the responses of the Legislature have not always aligned with the real problems that we need to address as a state.

Probably the most disturbing and hard to read story is about Harmony, the 7-year-old who has been missing since 2019. As reported in the Massachusetts Office of Child Advocate’s investigative report on Harmony released last week, New Hampshire is one of 14 states that do not guarantee right to counsel for all children involved in dependency proceedings; Maine is the only other state in the Northeast without this guarantee. But rather than fixing this and other problematic areas of law, “parental rights” bills have been proposed in the current legislative session that go in the opposite direction.

These bill are promoted by national organizations with extreme agendas. Their sponsors and supporters argue that parents have “lost so many rights” in the past few years and that these bills will restore them, but they provide no concrete evidence of this. The real motive of the “parental rights” campaign seems to me to tear down government, public education, and stifle diversity. Last year it was the unsubstantiated claim that “critical race theory” was being taught in our schools; this year it’s that parents are somehow being taken out of the picture. These proposals will do nothing but put our children and their families into conflict with each other, their schools, and their communities.

One of these bills proposed to make the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) an opt-in v. opt-out, which every mental health, health care and educational advocacy organization in the state opposed because “opt-in” will decrease participation in the survey, skew its accuracy, and thereby put at risk federal grants for mental health programs. Mental health centers and other community-based non-profits depend on these grants to help fund critical programs for children and teenagers who are at risk.

Supporters of YRBS bills say they don’t want their children asked questions about suicide, sex, alcohol and drugs, because families should discuss those things. They certainly should, but they often aren’t. What about the many children in our communities who are from dysfunctional families, abusive households, and homes where there is substance misuse? Who is listening to them? Without this anonymous, aggregated data, we will be lacking the basic information we need about our children and their behaviors.

The parental rights bill, HB 1431, will put into NH statute “the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their minor children.” This will limit and in many ways prohibit the ability of schools, health care providers and other social services agencies to engage with children who are in need and/or in crisis. This will tip the laws that already favor the rights of parents farther in that direction, at the expense of the rights and safety of children. To put this in the context of the Harmony Montgomery case, the parental rights bill will give her father – Adam Montgomery, again in jail – more rights than Harmony.

Here is an apt quote from the Massachusetts OCA report on the Harmony Montgomery case: “The key and central finding in this investigation and report are that Harmony’s individual needs, wellbeing, and safety were not prioritized or considered on an equal footing with the assertion of her parents’ rights to care for her in any aspect of the decision making by any state entity.” Our Governor said of the Massachusetts report, “At the end of the day, it is clear that the system failed Harmony. The (Massachusetts) court did not put her needs first and that was very, very evident. When you are talking about a child welfare system and child protection, you protect the child you make that the priority and it did not happen in this case.”

As a legislator, Manchester Alderman, a community volunteer, and as someone who advocates for children and their families, I know that the parental rights campaign will not serve New Hampshire’s children well, or at all. If HB 1431 makes it to his desk, I sincerely hope Governor Sununu sticks by his statement about the Harmony Montgomery report and vetoes the bill.

Rep. Pat Long, of Manchester, is serving his eighth term in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.