NHLN Opinion+: Moira O’Neill

Hugo Balta

This week we invited Moira O’Neill, the Director of the State of New Hampshire Office of the Child Advocate to speak give us an update about the impacts of Covid on child support and the obstacles children face in New Hampshire.

This generation of children will remember how exhausting it is to learn and grow online. The pandemic has placed many barriers in childhood success. “It’s really important that kids get back to school,” stated Director O’Neill as schools in New Hampshire are transitioning back to in person.

Mask mandates and vaccines are helping with this transition. However, due to children coming back to school there has been an increase in Covid cases in children as there is no vaccine for children at the moment. “This pandemic is not over by any means, and it seems to be moving into an area where kids are going to be affected in a different way.” 

The Northeast has not had as severe of cases as southern states have, but it has seen an increase in cases from last year. Most schools are open, but the issue now is the mask mandate. Masks allow students to be in the classroom and get an enhanced education as opposed to virtual learning.

One of the biggest impacts of being in person is the effect on mental health within standard education. “We still have a long list of kids waiting in emergency rooms to get access to care,” explained O’Neill when speaking about the impact of virtual learning on mental health. Many kids have never been in psychiatric situations before and it is crucial to get them the help they need so they can go back to school. “New Hampshire has very limited access to mental health services for kids, especially hospitalizations,” explained O’Neill. These lead to long wait times for other children that are in need of services.

Anxiety and depression are very common issues faced by children and it has led to traumatic experiences. New Hampshire is trying to build community-based services to assist those in need. 

Magnify Voices is an annual art contest that allows young students to use art to express themselves and show what it is like to experience mental health issues. This has given many students to raise awareness on the issues of mental health to their community and shows that adults need to be aware of these issues to best support their children. 

O’Neill’s role in the Office of the Child Advocate is analyzing the reasons why children are receiving emergency services, getting incarcerated, and not succeeding in school. “When we understand those things we can take a few steps back,” explained O’Neill when explaining how her role entails understanding how and why these kids are in emergency rooms and incarcerations.

O’Neill answers questions on What type of background are these kids living in? What relationship do they have with their parents and have they been able to have stable housing? Has abuse or neglect been an issue? 

The Child Advocate is seeing more Latinx and Black children getting arrested. “This is a very hard concept for us here in New Hampshire because it is a very White state,” explained O’Neill. She says not many people think that race and ethnicity is an issue. This acts as a barrier that prevents people from taking action in assisting ethnic minorities as they make up most incarceration facilities.

Currently, there are efforts in changing juvenile justice and the way justice is served for children. “Incentivizing kids because they respond better to incentives and understanding them a little bit better and ourselves too,” said O’Neill when explaining how they are trying to understand the stories of troubled kids. The Child Advocate is trying to bring people who have experience with the juvenile system to participate in educational outreach and legislation to show the importance of their lives. 

It’s important to raise awareness of these issues because they affect everyone. They affect the privilege because they lack the connection to those that are different and contribute to the divisions in our societies. Reaching out to our local legislature is the start to igniting change and all it takes is one person to speak up. 

Resources mentioned in the video: 

State of New Hampshire Office of the Child Advocate: https://childadvocate.nh.gov/

NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness): https://nami.org/Home

Youth Move: https://youthmovenational.org/

Division for Children Youth and Families Youth Advisory Board: NH Teen Voices/Youth Advisory Board | Division of Children and Youth Services | NH Department of Health and Human Services

The Office of the Child Advocate is forming the Youth Justice Stewards program – a grant funding program for advocacy organizations to hire young people with experience in or alliance to those in the juvenile justice system. Contact the OCA: Child Advocate ChildAdvocate@ChildAdvocate.nh.gov for more information.