CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire’s efforts to protect and help vulnerable children would be spun off into a separate agency under a bill before a Senate committee Wednesday.

Currently, child protection, foster and adoptive care, juvenile justice and programs to support families are part of the Department of Health and Human Services, the state’s largest agency. Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, proposes creating a new department of children’s services and juvenile justice.

Doing so would elevate the complex problems affecting children, from the opioid crisis to the coronavirus pandemic, she told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. She praised reforms overseen by Joe Ribsam, director of the Division for Children, Youth and Families, in recent years, but said that children’s issues must remain on the front burner.

“It’s time that we recognize that they need to have their own agency, their own department, their own commissioner who’s going to be held accountable for what happens and what doesn’t happen,” she said. “Over the years, we’ve been sued, and in fact, we’re facing another lawsuit. I just think it’s critical, and it’s time that we move forward with this.”

Carson did not elaborate on those legal challenges, but the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center and other groups recently sued the state over its treatment of foster youth with mental health conditions. In the last year, 230 men and woman have joined a different lawsuit alleging they were physically or sexually abused as children at the state’s youth detention center by 150 staffers over the course of six decades. The attorney general’s office is more than 18 months into a criminal investigation into the Youth Development Center, now called the Sununu Youth Services Center after former Gov. John H. Sununu.

The bill should not be viewed as an indictment of any past or current commissioners or administrations, said John DeJoie, representing the nonprofit social service agency Waypoint. He spoke in support of the idea, saying about 15 other states have taken similar steps.

“Often times what we see is: the crisis is what rises to the top,” he said. “We believe that for children’s services to truly get the focus they need, they need to be in their own agency and not competing with other important divisions.”

The Division for Children Youth and Families has been under scrutiny since the deaths of two toddlers under its supervision in 2014 and 2015. Officials have since undertaken multiple reform efforts, including the creation of an independent Office of the Child Advocate, increasing the division’s staffing and restoring voluntary services for parents aimed at preventing abuse and neglect. Under legislation passed in 2016, the state has begun building a comprehensive system of care for children’s behavioral health that emphasizes family-driven, community-based services coordinated across multiple systems, such as health care, child protection and juvenile justice.

Ribsam, who previously served as deputy commissioner of a stand-alone agency for children and families in New Jersey, has seen both the benefits and drawbacks of having a separate agency. The division’s structure is such that it can’t easily be “scooped out” like an ice cream cone, he said, but having a separate agency ensures children’s issues remain at the forefront.

“At this moment, DCYF has enjoyed a lot of attention from this Legislature, from the press, from the governor’s office,” he said. “When those issues are not on the front page every day, people tend to forget about them, and that leads a situation where they are under resourced and receive less attention than they need and ultimately end up where DCYF was three to five years ago.”

Moira O’Neill, director of the Office of the Child Advocate said she supports the bill as a way to ensure that children are a priority and that there is transparency when funds are allocated. She suggested, however, that “juvenile justice” be dropped from the name.

"By dropping juvenile justice from the name, we recognize the essence of juvenile justice, which is services for children so they grow to be healthy, rather than separating that out and having that stigma related to that,” she said.