The deadline to close the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester is March 2023. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)
The state appears likely to miss the Legislature’s March 2023 deadline to close the 144-bed Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester – and is behind on its plans for a smaller alternative that emphasizes treatment and support over incarceration.
Lawmakers are struggling to find consensus over how big the new facility should be and who should operate it: the state, which has been sued by hundreds of former residents alleging decades of abuse by staff, or a private company.
Senate Bill 458, as passed by the Senate in late March, would allow for up to 18 beds, extend the deadline by up to four years, and put the state in charge of operating it. Day to day, there are an average of 12 juveniles at the Sununu Youth Services Center, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
But Rep. Kimberly Rice, a Hudson Republican, made a passionate plea to the House Child and Family Law Committee Tuesday to retain the new deadline but cap the new facility at six beds. The state will need fewer beds, she argued, given new policies aimed at diverting kids from the court system and legislation passed by the House this year (House Bill 254) that would limit the types of offenses that qualify for detention.
“I try not to get emotional over this, but I can’t help but think about all those cases of how many people whose lives were ruined, ruined because they were placed at Sununu,” she said. “How many of them died from suicide or drug overdoses because they were trying to cope with what happened to them. I don’t want that ever to happen again. … We were supposed to be looking out for them, and we failed tremendously.”
The committee voted, 13-1, in favor of Rice’s amendment. It heads next to the House Finance Committee to decide how much to spend on a new treatment facility. If the committee’s rewrite of the bill clears the full House, it won’t get to the governor’s desk unless the Senate agrees or can strike a compromise with the House.
A smaller, state-run facility has the support of the Office of the Child Advocate, a state agency created by the Legislature four years ago to provide oversight of New Hampshire’s Division for Children, Youth, and Families. Other supporters include New Hampshire Legal Assistance and the Disability Rights Center.
Michelle Wangerin, youth law project director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, also urged the committee to leave control of a new facility in the hands of Health and Human Services – despite the claims of sexual and physical abuse by staff from more than 450 former residents. A state-run facility, she said, will allow the state to oversee and more closely monitor the care of children placed there than it could if a private company ran it.
“We have gotten so much better and the state has gotten so much better,” she said. “When the circumstances that existed in these lawsuits occurred, we were in a different space. We didn’t have a system of care. We didn’t have a therapeutic model, which we are working towards and which this bill mandates that we move towards … even before the new facility is complete. And we didn’t have the real-time oversight by the Office of the Child Advocate.”
She added: “And so while we’re looking at hundreds of millions of dollars of lawsuits because we had a poorly managed system at some point in the past, it doesn’t mean that we’re still there.”
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