FILE - Child isolation depression

(The Center Square) – New Hampshire isn't doing enough to find homes for foster children under its care, and is violating the rights of older kids who are placed into group homes, a federal lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and several children's advocacy and disability groups, alleges that the state is violating the constitutional and statutory rights of children in foster care who have "suffered irreparable injury" as a result.

The 61-page complaint argues that the state is putting too much emphasis on placing children in group homes over finding them a spot within a foster setting and denies older children in foster care access to legal representation. The lawsuit asks a judge to mandate reforms to the programs and appoint a federal monitor to oversee the state's foster care system.

“Too many older youth in New Hampshire are subject to unnecessary warehousing by a state system that prioritizes institutionalization over family and community," Shereen White, a senior attorney at the New York-based Children’s Rights Inc., said in a statement. "The risks of serious harm to these youth are even more imminent during the COVID-19 public health emergency, because social distancing is virtually impossible in group care facilities."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of several children under the care of the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families or are at risk of being placed in a group home. It names Gov. Chris Sununu, Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette, and Division for Children, Youth and Families Director Joseph Ribsam, among other state officials.

Karen Rosenberg, a senior attorney at the Disability Rights Center of New Hampshire, said children who have been removed from their parents due to allegations of abuse or neglect need to be placed in community based settings where they can receive adequate resources and support.

"These teens need to feel connected to their families, friends, schools, and communities to navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood," Rosenberg said.

In 2019, more than 70% of foster youth in New Hampshire aged 14 to 17 were housed in congregate care, according to the complaint. The national average for that age range is 31%.

Meanwhile, older youth with mental health diagnoses are even more likely to end up in group homes, according to the complaint. In 2019, 90.5% older foster kids were placed in congregate care, compared to the national average of 39.8%.

Responding to the complaint, Sununu defended the state's foster care system and blasted what he described as "special interest" groups behind the legal challenge. He said the state has enacted reforms over the past four years that have made "great strides to care for our children."

"This New York based entity doesn't care about our kids," the Republican said in a statement. "They are looking for attention for themselves, and their legal maneuverings will bring our progressive reforms to a grinding halt. Shame on every single person associated with this effort."