DHHS Issues “General Appeal” to Retain Sununu Youth Services Center Staff – New Hampshire Bulletin

A severe shortage of youth counselors at Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester has compounded problems with routine behavior on police calls and prompted a ‘blanket call’ to any Department of Health and Social Services worker willing to take an extra shift, department officials said Tuesday. .

These challenges come as the detention center is due to close in March with no replacement plan and amid sharp disagreement among lawmakers over where displaced youths should go. This debate will likely continue in the next session with new legislation calling for an 18-bed facility, a failed proposal in the last days of the previous session.

The option of sending children to county jails has been a new topic of conversationn, no later than this week, but is strongly opposed by prison wardens, health and social services, the Office of the Children’s Advocate, a group of six child advocacy agencies and the lawmaker behind the new bill.

Lori Weaver, the Deputy Commissioner of Health and Human Services, recently told the House Health and Human Services Oversight Committee that without a plan in place, residents, ages 13 to 17, could be moved to similar out-of-state facilities, although few if any have openings, or released from custody.

“I hope I don’t see that day,” Weaver said. “I guess I would say I think it would be a real problem on April 1 if we had nowhere to go for the young people who are there. As many of you know, these are some of our toughest young people.

In a statement, the Juvenile Reform Policy Group agreed. Members of the group — Waypoint, New Hampshire Legal Assistance, New Futures, Disability Rights Center-NH, ACLU of New Hampshire and Children’s Legal Services NH — worked with lawmakers to support last year’s bill.

“The consequences would be catastrophic,” the statement said. “We know from New Hampshire’s own history that children who are physically isolated from the outside world are among the most vulnerable population in the state. Although they are among our most difficult children, with few exceptions, they also enter the facility after experiencing lifelong trauma. They are both worthy and capable of rehabilitation.

The group pointed to Vermont, which closed its juvenile detention center in 2020, saying those residents had been secluded in motel rooms and sent out of state, away from families.

The Sununu Youth Services Center, which can accommodate 144 children sentenced to detention by the courts, has an average of 12 residents per day but fluctuates between eight and 15 at a cost of $13 million per year. The center’s impending closure and uncertain future has led some staff to resign for jobs with greater certainty and has also hampered staff recruitment efforts, said Joe Ribsam, director of the Children, Youth and Youth Division. families, in an interview this week.

“Youth adviser positions are on the front line,” Ribsam said. “To run this facility, we need (the equivalent of) 45 full-time (workers). “Right now we have just over 20. That’s what puts us in this really awful situation.”

Ribsam said about 60 department staff have expressed interest in taking shifts for overtime pay since the department announced the opportunity last week. Staff deemed eligible will be trained, including in de-escalation techniques, and will follow a youth counselor before working alone, he said.

Ribsam said dealing with routine behavioral issues, such as refusing to cooperate with instructions, has become so difficult due to understaffing that police assistance has been requested over the past two months. This is a first in the five years he has been with the ministry, he said. Since then, the department has arranged for soldiers to come in occasionally to “normalize” their presence.

Cassandra Sanchez, the state’s children’s advocate, said the center also needs to fully staff its clinical team, who have advanced mental health training. She called the use of state troopers a “creative” short-term choice, not a replacement for clinically trained counselors.

“They need to know the kids, their background, what their triggers may be, and be able to guide them through a situation or talk them down in a situation,” she says.

This is not the situation the department or lawmakers anticipated when the House and Senate voted in 2021 to close the center by March 2023.

In January, Senator Gary Daniels, a Republican from Milford who led a study committee that investigated replacement options, filed a bill propose one or more new facilities for up to 18 residents, but which would receive funding to care for only six children on a regular basis and another six for “short periods”.

The proposal, which focused on treatment rather than detention, was consistent with analysis commissioned by Health and Human Services, and Sanchez said other states that use prisons for their minors see New Hampshire as a model to follow. She said these states experience more fights, assaults and sexual abuse.

Daniels’ bill failed on six beds: the House insisted on a maximum of 12 beds; the Senate wanted 12 with the possibility of adding six if necessary to space out the children.

Lawmakers will return in January with just three months to resolve the situation.

Rep. Jess Edwards, a Republican from Auburn, is working on a bill that would extend the closing date by three months and give the department $1.5 million to continue operating until then. Edwards said he knew three months was not enough and was willing to extend it again. Sanchez thinks building a new facility could take more than a year, given supply chain issues and the lengthy process the state must go through to contract with consultants and builders.

Edwards said he would also introduce a bill similar to Daniels’ that would replace the center with an 18-bed “trauma-sensitive” facility that is secure but would also support therapeutic care in a hospital-like environment. home. It would be funded, however, for only 12 to 14 residents. Edwards said the extra space is intended to give the department more room to separate the children.

Ribsam said the department supports the plan and is optimistic it will be successful this time around. Sanchez hopes to see a bipartisan group of lawmakers make it a priority and push it through successfully this time around. She urges those making decisions to visit the detention center.

“I think it’s really helpful for people to take the time and go listen to (kids),” she said. “They are very smart. We check in with them monthly. They are very insightful. They can tell us what they need for treatment.

The Juvenile Reform Policy Group also said it was hopeful.

“During the last legislative session, House and Senate leaders demonstrated their commitment to advancing a small facility grounded in a trauma-informed, evidence-based approach designed for the small number of children who need treatment in a secure facility,” he said. “We are optimistic that the groundwork is in place to reach the finish line in this legislative session.”

Asked why a proposal that failed last time would succeed now, Edwards said lawmakers would have more time to debate it and get feedback from stakeholders; the previous bill collapsed due to amendments made weeks before the end of the session.

There is another change. The House member who wouldn’t budge on a 12-bed cap, Rep. Kimberly Rice, a Republican from Hudson, is not seeking reelection.

Relocating youth to county jails is a second option that seems likely to go nowhere, even temporarily while the state builds a new facility. Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette asked prison officials this week for their position on the care of juvenile offenders, for comment and not because she supports the idea, said department spokesman Jake Leon in an email.

“Although superintendents have come to the table to collaborate, all parties have agreed that sending young people to county facilities is not possible under current law and is not in the best interest of the youth and families we serve,” said Leon. “The department does not support placing young people in an adult facility.” He said he remains committed to Daniels’ Bill plan.

The prison superintendents objected to the idea when it was raised at the last session. Their stance hasn’t changed for many reasons, said Rockingham County Jail Superintendent Jason Henry.

Under federal law, adults and minors must be separated by “sight and hearing.” Henry said upgrading prisons to meet those regulations would be costly and take so long that the state would have to push back its closing date even later. State laws do not give prisons the power to manage minors. Changing those laws would also take a long time, he said.

Correctional staff are not trained to work with children, who Henry says are likely to need a different level of care, education and psychological counseling. And prison directors do not believe prison is a suitable place for minors, he said.

“Why would you want these children mixed up with adults who have committed adult crimes?” said Henry. “These are still kids who should be treated this way and get the help they need to get back into society and be productive.”

The Juvenile Reform Policy Group said it would oppose jail as an alternative – if the proposal is raised.

“This conversation took place last year, and if such an option were offered, it would be incredibly wrong,” its statement read. “Children are not mini-adults. It is clear that the few children who require treatment in secure facilities have mental and behavioral health needs that require targeted, evidence-based, needs-based interventions for rehabilitation purposes. Housing children in adult correctional facilities is dangerous, would only serve to re-traumatize already vulnerable young people and would be the worst possible outcome.

Richard F. Gandhi