CONCORD — The New Hampshire Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled against a former state employee who accused the Department of Health and Human Services of failing to protect children from abuse and neglect.
Anna Carrigan, a former social worker, sued the department in February 2020 alleging that its handling of abuse and neglect cases is illegal and unconstitutional and that she had been retaliated against for publicly criticizing it. The agency later settled the retaliation claim for $120,000, and a superior court dismissed the rest of the lawsuit on the grounds that she lacked standing to sue.
Carrigan appealed, but the state Supreme Court upheld the lawsuit’s dismissal in a unanimous decision Tuesday. It said while a 2018 amendment to the state Constitution allows taxpayers to sue even if they are not alleging personal injury, they must challenge specific spending decisions, rather than “a governmental body’s comprehensive response to a complex issue, such as child welfare,” as Carrigan did.
While courts routinely analyze the legality of specific governmental actions, “scrutinizing the entire realm of a governmental body’s spending activity, on the other hand, to determine what aspects of its spending decisions, if any, are causing injury exceeds the bounds of our role and infringes on executive or legislative prerogatives,” justices wrote.
Justices acknowledged that Carrigan’s lawsuit “references several specific instances of spending” but said they did not read her complaint as “challenging the legality of any specific acts.” Her attorney, Michael Lewis, called that confusing and inaccurate and said he may ask the court to reconsider its ruling. He also said the attorney general’s office, which represented the Department of Health and Human Services, has become part of the problem.
“They chose to fight tooth and nail to block us from bringing this case forward on a merits basis. What is that? What are you trying to preserve there? The right of government officials to continue to fail to solve a public health and public safety crisis for children?” he said. “What kind of decision making is that?”
The health department referred questions to the attorney general’s office, where a spokesperson declined to comment.
The state’s child protection system 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 also 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.