The Bulletin Board

O’Neill to step down as director of the Office of the Child Advocate

By: - November 17, 2021 1:11 pm
A view of the statehouse

The Office of the Child Advocate was created by the Legislature to provide oversight over New Hampshire’s Division for Children, Youth, and Families. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Moira O’Neill, New Hampshire’s director of the Office of the Child Advocate, will not seek a second term in the role, she announced Wednesday – three years after she started as the watchdog agency’s first director.

“This opportunity was the capstone of a career and scholarship,” O’Neill said in a statement, thanking Gov. Chris Sununu for her initial nomination and the Oversight Commission on Children’s Services. 

In an interview, O’Neill said her goal as director had been to build up the agency and achieve stability. Once she had done that, she said, she felt her time was up. 

“I think it’s important and I think it’s healthy for the organization to be able to stand on its own feet and not be misconstrued as any one particular leader,” she said. 

Moira O'Neill
Moira O’Neill

O’Neill was chosen in 2018 to head the new agency, created by the Legislature to provide oversight over New Hampshire’s Division for Children, Youth, and Families. At the time, New Hampshire’s child services agency was reeling from a string of deaths of children under its care, a shortage of staff, and an extreme backlog of cases that left its employees burned out. 

O’Neill brought experience to the role. Previously, she had served as the assistant child advocate in Connecticut from 2000 to 2011. But building up the brand new office required O’Neill to walk a fine line, balancing the need to investigate actions by the Department of Health and Human Services with the desire to collaborate with the agencies to inspire reform. 

The results have been prolific. The agency has produced annual reports evaluating the progress of DCYF as it sought to increase its staff, and carried out system learning reviews to evaluate how the agency could have improved its response to specific cases. 

In January 2020, the OCA issued a report examining the more than 15,000 uses of restraints on children over a five-year period in the state, focusing on the practice of face-down, prone restraints, which can be lethal. 

The agency also advocated for funding for the re-establishment of voluntary services for families in 2020 – services that allow child protective workers to work with families on a voluntary basis to try to head off worrisome behavior and avoid tragic outcomes. 

And it successfully pushed for a broadening of the definition of emotional abuse of children, urging lawmakers to add chronic cases of emotional abuse to the definition in state statute. 

In 2020, Sununu signed a law that would expand the jurisdiction of the office, allowing it to oversee all New Hampshire state agencies that provide services to children and removing it from the control of the Attorney General’s Office, which some regarded as a threat to its independence. 

To O’Neill, one of the biggest accomplishments has been the expansion of the office itself. The staff has grown under her leadership, and so have the processes for reports and investigations.

Looking ahead, O’Neill says the next director should understand the delicate balance required. 

“I think it needs to be someone who can appreciate that collaborative, respectful relationship-building that’s so important, but also someone that can stand firm and take the heat,” she said. “Because there is heat … particularly when you start interacting with politicians who are trying to achieve things that are different than what the office is doing.” 

And she hopes the next director will take a longer-term role, arguing the public would benefit from longevity. But her job, she said, will soon end. 

“It’s sort of like you bring in the building crew,” she said. “And once that’s done, then someone takes ownership and can sort of steer this office on for a long time.”

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.