Webster House staff worries about accepting convicted youth

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Sununu Youth Services Center Photo credit: Prime Roofing Corp

MANCHESTER, NH – On January 1, 2018, “non-secure” group homes like Manchester’s The Webster House will be forced to accept young people who have been convicted of conduct, which if committed by an adult, would constitute a crime such as drug possession, second-degree assault, simple assault, domestic violence, sexual assault, arson, and robbery.

Webster House is a private, non-profit home that was founded in 1884, with a mission of providing a “safe haven” for youth who are unable for various reasons to live at home for some period of time.

“The law is not only dreadful for our children in placement at The Webster House or in similar group homes throughout the state, but it will also have a negative impact on our community here in Manchester,” wrote Lou Catano, Webster House Executive Director, and John Clayton, board president, in a November 23 letter to the editor.

Under new criteria set by a state budget trailer bill, HB 517, which was passed in June, a youth must be convicted of four offenses before they can be placed in a secure facility. Until that threshold, they can only be placed in a non-secure community group home or treatment center.

Such youths, from age 13 to 17, are currently placed at the state-administered Sununu Youth Services Center for an average stay of 8 to 12 months. The Manchester facility was built in 2006 as a secure facility and is charged with protecting and rehabilitating violent youth. It can house up to 144 residents, but just 50 to 60 youth are currently living there. There is a current shortage of beds in group homes throughout New Hampshire – 22 homes closed in the past six years, and 21 group homes remain.

State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro (D-Manchester), who did not vote for the bill, has served on the board of trustees of both The Webster House and the now-closed Youth Development Center.

“There is a preference in Concord for moving such youth into the community, versus incarceration. I think there is a place for the Sununu Center. It’s sad but true that there are kids who need to be in that protected environment,” D’Allesandro said.

The new rule was passed as a cost-saving measure, part of a budget package that allocates $371 per day per resident for youths in group homes. The Sununu Center costs $499 per day per resident. While there is a 5 percent rate increase for the state’s group homes – the first in 9 years – many will still not come close to covering their operating costs, and will continue to rely on fundraising for survival, according to Catano.

In their letter, Catano and Clayton wrote, “While reducing the population of the Sununu Center may save the state money, it doesn’t take in to account the downshifting of costs to the community, schools, police, emergency rooms or victims!” They go on to say that mixing these youth into the group home population “puts the current residents and the staff of these facilities at risk. […] These youth are more prone to violence and running away, so staff must turn their attention to that individual and the other children suffer.”

Catano concedes that while the state fully funds the Sununu Youth Center, community center placements are Medicaid reimbursable at 50 to 60 percent. But he calls the potential cost savings “an illusion.”

In a radio interview, Catano said, “It’s also going to greatly downshift costs out into the community. There’ll be probably more police involvement, more difficulties in the communities and the schools, in emergency rooms and mental health centers.”

Catano added, “I’ve heard kids tell me numerous times over the years, the only reason I’m trying to get my act together and get back on a good path is because I have the Sununu Youth [Services] Center hanging over my head.” He says that the new policy, by making it difficult to get there, conveys “the wrong message to the kids.”

The Board members of The Webster House have posted an online petition to amend the law. It has garnered 575 signatures as of Dec. 5.