Advocates: Limiting police use of Sununu Center will hurt, not help, kids
The center, for court-involved juveniles ages 13 to 17, typically has about 12 juveniles at any given time. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Over the objections of child advocates, a House committee voted Wednesday to reduce the number of offenses that would make a juvenile eligible for detention at the Sununu Youth Services Center. They warned rather than help juveniles, the law change could lead to more juveniles being charged.
There are also questions about whether the bill would increase the number of juveniles per staff member and impact the Sununu Youth Services Center’s budget.
Currently, the police can place a juvenile who commits simple assault or domestic violence at the center when there is no other safe place while the state arranges services, supports, and alternative placement in a foster or group home or with a family member.
It happens rarely and only in crisis situations, such as the middle of the night, advocates said. The detention is often less than three days.
House Bill 49, which passed the House Finance Committee, 23-2, would eliminate simple assault and domestic violence as eligible offenses. The Sununu Youth Services Center would no longer be an option in a crisis situation unless the juvenile had been found delinquent by a judge three times within a 12-month period.
Advocates from New Hampshire Legal Assistance, Disability Rights Center-NH, and NAMI New Hampshire told the committee they feared that threshold would lead law enforcement to charge juveniles more often. It would be the only way they could place a juvenile at the Sununu Youth Services Center during a crisis, when there was no other option. That would be a significant change, they said, because law enforcement can use the center as a temporary placement without having two prior findings of delinquency within the last 12 months against a juvenile.
Felony-level crimes such as murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, first- and second-degree assault, second-degree assault, rape, and other serious crimes would remain eligible for detention at the center.
The center, for court-involved juveniles ages 13 to 17, typically has about 12 juveniles at any given time. New Hampshire has achieved the lowest rate of juvenile detentions and commitments in the country thanks to policy changes that favor non-court interventions, Joe Ribsam, director of the Division for Children, Youth, and Families, told the committee.
Advocates said that is contrary to the goal of juvenile justice reform, which is to divert juveniles not only from detention but also from court in the first place.
“If we want to further narrow the door, I don’t think the right way to do that is by closing the door, but by building up the system of care,” said Michelle Wangerin, youth law project director at NHLA. “For those kids who are first-time offenders committing domestic violence offenses at home, either against their parents or their siblings, we need to build up the system of care to be able to manage those kids in the community.”
As the state moves to replace the 144-bed Sununu Youth Services Center with a smaller, therapeutic facility, Wangerin and Child Advocate Cassandra Sanchez warned committee members that a juvenile with multiple charges could end up in a large, less therapeutic out-of-state facility.
They are also concerned that the bill, as amended Wednesday, would require the Sununu Youth Services Center to maintain staff ratios in accordance with standards set by “national accrediting bodies.” Ribsam told the committee there are no accrediting organizations for juvenile detention facilities.
A federal ratio that comes closest could increase the center’s current ratio of three children per staff member to eight children for each staff member, he said.
Sanchez told committee members of her trip to Arkansas to visit New Hampshire children placed in a center there that housed more than 100 children. The center’s ratio of 12 children for each staff person made a therapeutic approach unworkable, she said, because staff could allow only half the juveniles out of the rooms at a time.
“What (the New Hampshire juveniles) shared was how that felt for them to be trapped,” Sanchez told the committee. “They shared the experience of feeling like animals, all day long, and they did not have any dignity and respect because they were held in their rooms because staffing did not allow for any changes.”
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