In ‘extremely frustrating’ vote, House committee derails Senate’s Sununu Center plans

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Rep. J.R. Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican, questions Joe Ribsam, director of the Division for Children, Youth, and Families, and Morissa Henn, associate commissioner at the Department of Health and Human Services, about legislation that would replace the Sununu Youth Services Center.Photo/Annmarie Timmins
Rep. J.R. Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican, questions Joe Ribsam, director of the Division for Children, Youth, and Families, and Morissa Henn, associate commissioner at the Department of Health and Human Services, about legislation that would replace the Sununu Youth Services Center.Photo/Annmarie Timmins

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CONCORD, NH – It was deja vu Thursday for child advocates who’ve watched with frustration as lawmakers have repeatedly failed to close and replace the 144-bed Sununu Youth Services Center with a facility that emphasizes therapy over detention.

The Senate bill that was supposed to fast-track the closure and replacement of the center hit a major hurdle Thursday afternoon with a 23-0 vote by the House Finance Committee to gut it. There is now no closure date.

Advocates did not hide their disappointment or concerns that ongoing uncertainty about the future of the center could prompt staff who want job security to leave. Just 20 of the facility’s 45 positions are being filled. Advocates say those vacancies are already jeopardizing the state’s ability to provide a supportive therapeutic environment with individual attention.

“I am afraid that at times it is tragedies that actually move the needle, and I don’t want to have that happen,” said Borja Alvarez de Toledo, president and chief executive officer of Waypoint, a nonprofit that serves children and families. The House committee agreed with the Senate on repealing the March 1 deadline to close the center, set last year as a compromise by lawmakers when they couldn’t agree on the size of a new facility. But it removed provisions in Senate Bill 1 that would have used $15 million in American Rescue Plan Act money to build a new, much smaller facility by Nov. 1, 2024.

The committee sought a slower approach to the same end, rejecting requests by advocates, Division for Children, Youth, and Families Director Joe Ribsam, and Gov. Chris Sununu to stick with the Senate bill.

The House committee’s amended bill would give the Department of Health and Human Services $400,000 to study the location of a new facility and $1.5 million to keep the current building open and staffed until June, the end of the state’s fiscal year.

The department would have to complete the site study by Sept. 30; it is looking at building on the current site in Manchester and at New Hampshire Hospital in Concord or Hampstead Hospital, where a facility could share services like laundry and dining.

The committee, however, did not set a date for closing and replacing the center, a goal that’s repeatedly failed in the Legislature, largely over the cost and size of a new facility. It was unclear how long the state has before it cannot use the federal pandemic relief money.

The center, a locked facility in Manchester, holds court-involved juveniles ages 13 to 17. Typically, just five to 12 juveniles are there at a time. Ribsam said Thursday evening that he believes removing the “guillotine” of the March 1 deadline will help the department hold onto staff. “But it’s just disappointing that after years of work and really consensus among the folks that work with kids and families about what the right next step is, we’re not going to do it,” he said.

The bill heads next to the full House. If it passes there, it would return to the Senate, where members would have to vote on the House’s changes. Ribsam said he has hope the Legislature will ultimately agree on a closure and replacement date, either through other legislation or budget negotiations.

The size of the facility remained a stumbling block Thursday.

Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat on the House Finance Committee, supports closure. But she said she opposes a new facility that has up to 18 beds as the Senate bill called for. She wants something smaller. There was also pushback from new lawmakers who, unlike their longer-serving colleagues, have not spent years reading studies and talking through options with advocates and state agency heads.

Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican on the Finance Committee who supported the Senate bill, tried to persuade his committee colleagues to do the same Thursday.

“We are on the cusp of success and doing our job,” he said. “And what I think the vote on SB 1 will do is to bring us to concur with all of the hard work of the Senate that’s been done and supported by the department; that’s been done and supported by the advocacy groups and the public; … and we have a letter from the governor. So out of respect for all of those people that have looked at this and have delivered us SB 1, I would like us to vote.”

It wasn’t enough for lawmakers who want more information. Nor was the Senate’s unified 24-0 vote for its version of the bill.

“What I see now is we’re trying to create and spend money, but we haven’t defined the location or what the facility is before we even get there,” said Rep. J.R. Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican. “So hearing what you said, there’s a lot of people that say this is a good idea to pass out of the Senate 24-0, but I think we’re not ready.”

Child Advocate Cassandra Sanchez, whose office is charged with ensuring the state is caring appropriately for at-risk children, attended Thursday’s committee hearing

“It feels like we’re starting at the beginning, which is extremely frustrating,” she said. “There are a lot of new faces, so they don’t know how long this has been going on. But for those who have been doing this for a long time, it’s extremely frustrating because we don’t have time right now to wait for people to understand the issue.”

She added, “What we really need is for them to listen to the experts, those who’ve been doing this for years; who have an understanding of the children, their needs; who spent significant amounts of time at the facility; who know what it feels like.”

Keith Kuenning, director of advocacy for Waypoint, called the committee’s decision “paralysis by analysis.” He said he’s concerned the department will continue to lose staff who want a job with security and become too short-handed to keep the center open. He pointed to Vermont, which has housed its youth in hotels and out of state since closing its facility.

“So where do our kids go? Our kids go to Michigan, our kids go to Arkansas,” Kuenning said. “Tell me how that’s a community-based service if we’re shipping our children out of state. So you know, nobody wants to see a kid in a locked-up facility. Nobody. But in some instances, it happens. But we should take care of New Hampshire’s children in New Hampshire.”

Edwards disagreed. He ultimately voted with the committee to rewrite the Senate bill, he said, to keep the process moving forward. He believes putting a firm date for completing a site analysis and giving the department money to do it tells staff the Legislature is committed and that their jobs are secure.


This story was republished with permission under New Hampshire Bulletin’s Creative Commons license.


 

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About this Author

Annmarie Timmons

Senior ReporterNH Bulletin

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.