Support for closing Sununu Center stops at jail as an alternative

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There is a lot of support for closing the Sununu Center, but division remains on some of the details. Photo/Dave Cummings, New Hampshire Bulletin)

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MANCHESTER, NH – State lawmakers and juvenile advocates have long wanted to close the Sununu Youth Services Center, believing a youth detention facility is the wrong place to hold and rehabilitate children. They also oppose spending the governor’s proposed $13 million a year for the approximately 17 children held there at any given time.

They’re divided, however, on a firm June 2022 closure date and a recent statement by Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican, that the “violent” children could be transferred to a county jail.

“We are going to have to pay something to place youth in other scenarios,” Edwards told the Senate Finance Committee this week. “And we’re still going to have the problem that there are some juveniles that are so violent that we probably need to find something like a contract with Hillsborough County Jail to use their modular system to house a few of these kids.”

The possibility of using a jail concerns lawmakers, advocates, and Gov. Chris Sununu.

“Governor Sununu fully supports closing the Youth Detention Center permanently and believes the state must provide alternative pathways to provide services to these youths,” said Sununu’s spokesperson, Ben Vihstadt. “But it must be done right, and the answer is unequivocally not placing them in an adult jail.”

Michelle Wangerin, director of the Youth Law Project at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, agrees.

“Incarceration in adult correctional facilities would be a grave mistake,” she said. “First of all, these are children, and even children who have committed the most violent offenses are capable of rehabilitation. Second, as ineffective as large juvenile correctional facilities are, adult facilities are particularly harmful environments for these youth.”

The Sununu Youth Service Center, which houses children ages 13-17 who’ve been ordered by a juvenile court to be held in a secure setting, can hold 144 children. But last year, the average number of children overseen by approximately 90 staff members was 17.

As reported here, the center is currently the subject of a federal lawsuit brought by 230 adults who allege they were abused by more than 150 staff members between 1962 and 2014. While the lawsuit prompted renewed calls for closing the center, lawmakers have been trying to shut it down for at least a decade, mostly by limiting the qualifying offenses for placement, said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat.

Those law changes have reduced the number of youths placed at the center from an average 68 in 2016, to 48 in 2018, to 17 last year. But it hasn’t succeeded in persuading the Department of Health and Human Services to close the center and find new therapeutic and secure settings for the children. Lawmakers appear to be done waiting.

The House budget eliminates funding for the center in the second year of the budget, thereby forcing it to close by June 2022. The budget includes $2.5 million to transfer children to other treatment settings.

Moira O’Neill, director of the Office of the Child Advocate, said she supports the Legislature’s goal to close the center and its reasoning: It’s not a good use of money, and research shows that prison-like settings make low-level offenders higher-level offenders; harm their intellectual development; and prevent them from developing social skills or connections with the community they will eventually return to.

Her support stops at transferring any children to a county jail, and she’s not convinced the state can get appropriate therapeutic settings in place by 2022. But she’s optimistic the state may be able to get there the following year – if the Legislature reverses its $13 million cut to the center’s budget and allows the state to invest that money in creating new, community-based settings that keep the children and the community safe. She believes Senate Bill 14, passed last year, makes important investments in mobile crisis response and child and family services that will begin expanding treatment options. But creating alternative options for youths needing secure and therapeutic care will also need funding, she said.

“The (House) Finance Committee wants to see an immediate savings,” she said. “The reality is to do this and do it well will probably take more than a year, and the savings won’t be now. It will be in the next biennium.”

Wallner, who sits on the House Finance Committee, hears O’Neill’s concern but isn’t ready to remove or move the June 2022 deadline – yet.

“I think this is something that really needs to move forward and get started soon,” she said. “I think the main thing right now is to figure out the best place for these kids to go. I think there are some good providers out there who can do this work. You sort of need to set a date and work toward something, and if you need to extend it, there will be opportunities to revisit that.”

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