Report recommends replacing 144-bed Sununu Youth Services Center with 18-bed ‘home’

By: - October 4, 2021 5:54 am
Exterior sign for the Sununu Youth Services Center

The state spends about $13 million a year to run the Sununu Youth Services Center. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story was updated Oct. 4, 2021 at 9 a.m. with a link to the report.

The state Department of Health and Human Services is asking lawmakers to replace the 144-bed Sununu Youth Services Center for detained children with an 18-bed “home” that emphasizes therapeutic relationships, individualized learning, and a science-based, trauma-informed approach. 

“In creating a new staffing plan, it is critical to acknowledge the large shift in program and treatment model,” reads a consultant’s report commissioned by the department. “New Hampshire will no longer operate a ‘juvenile correctional facility,’ it will be providing a ‘residential behavioral treatment’ program in this new facility.”

The state budget funds the existing center for two more years with an understanding the department will close and replace it with a smaller, more appropriate facility for detained youth ages 13-17 by March 1, 2023.

The legislative committee overseeing that work received the consultant’s report this week and must have its own report and recommendations completed by Nov. 1, in time to prepare legislation for the next session if necessary. The 37-page report includes input from those who work in youth services and seven youths and parents who agreed to be interviewed. It focuses a good deal on the structure and layout of a new facility and stresses the importance of recruiting staff with college degrees and training in fields such education, social work, clinical psychology, or youth services. 

The state’s current practice of hiring staff with experience in large, adult correctional facilities, which is not unique to this facility, should stop, the report said. The report also addresses funding.

The state currently spends about $13 million a year to run the center that averages nine children a day, a ratio that puts the cost of housing a child at about $1,700 a day. The report acknowledges that the new programs will require upfront expenses but does not estimate the cost of that programming or building the new facility envisioned in the report.

The legislative committee overseeing the closure and replacement of the center will work through the report over the next few weeks. One of those committee members, Republican Rep. Jess Edwards of Auburn, has concerns about what he feels is missing: a focus on safety. While the report addresses the need to have a secure facility, none of the job descriptions put anyone in charge of it, he said. He said the department told him safety is part of each staff member’s job.

“In my old Army way of thinking, if everyone is responsible, no one is responsible,” Edwards said. 

Edwards also wants more assurances that the money invested in a new facility produces results. With the average stay ranging from a few weeks to three months, Edwards said he’s not convinced children will make the gains envisioned before being released. He intends to ask what follow-up services will be available and how the department suggests balancing ongoing support and a child’s right to live without the state’s interference. 

Moira O’Neill, the state’s child advocate, shares Edwards’s concerns about after-care but for different reasons. The state has finally been able to create more robust community-based services to support not only at-risk children but also their families, she said. Her worry is that because it is so new, lawmakers and others in juvenile justice do not yet trust their effectiveness. 

O’Neill believes every child currently in the Sununu Youth Services Center could live in their community safely with those services. For that reason, she said, 18 beds seems excessive.

“I don’t mind them building this 18-bed facility,” she said. “But my expectation is that it would be empty. “

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

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.