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Report: Sununu Youth Center Used 'Unlawful Restraint," Excessive Force on Disabled Boy

In a new report, the Disability Rights Center of New Hampshire says staff at the Sununu Youth Center used excessive force on a 14-year-old boy with emotional and behavioral disabilities in December of 2016. The DRC's investigation found probable cause to suspect the Sununu Center used, and continues to use, unlawful restraint.

All Things Considered host Peter Biello interviewed Andrew Milne, staff attorney for the DRC, to discuss the new report. (SCROLL to the bottom of this post to read the report as well as the response from DHHS.)

(Below is a lightly edited transcript of the story.)

So walk us through what happened here. Someone reported that this 14-year-old boy, who we're referring to is Zach, though that's not his real name, was injured. How did this allegedly happen?

Well, what we learned from reviewing a video of the incident is, and this is a different story from what we read in the incident reports that we initially reviewed. What we saw in the video is this 14-year-old child Zach was kind of popping in and out of his room in a particular unit of the new center that's meant for kids who are having behavioral experiencing behavioral challenges and he wanted to talk with that particular supervisor who just stepped in. He kept kind of popping in and out of his room. And finally one of the staff on the unit entered his room and we can't see what happened there but apparently our restraint occurred resulting in Zach being on the floor. And that upset him further after the staff member left the room, Zach was banging and kicking the door and still wanting to have a conversation.

Credit Disability Rights Center
Andrew Milne, staff attorney for the Disability Rights Center, N.H.

And the staff then -- they were holding the door closed with their hands and feet. Two of them, and they decided to open the door and Zach came flying out and staff immediately dropped him to the floor, face down. And one of the staff members landed on Zach's back, which is what the medical examiner concluded was probably the cause of the fracture to Zach's shoulder blade.

What you say in this report is that that is categorized as unlawful restraint, correct?

Yes. So there is a statute that was passed by the New Hampshire legislature, I think in 2010, that RSA 126 U. And it places some pretty strict limits on when restraints can be used against a child. And one of the limits is that it can only be used basically in emergency situations, where there is an imminent and substantial risk of serious bodily harm to the child or others. And we determined that Zach was not posing an imminent and substantial risk of serious bodily harm. And so that's one way in which the state law was violated, which in turn makes it abuse under federal law.

So you started the investigation as a response to that complaint and you uncovered as part of that investigation that there's probable cause to believe that this wasn't a one-off? This happens and continues to happen?

Exactly. We found that there's a pattern where staff resort to restraints when circumstances don't merit it under the law. It seems to be used often to manage challenging behaviors rather than to prevent serious injury.

You also had trouble obtaining some documents related to this and I believe it was other incidents at Sununu Youth Services Center, is that correct?

There has been a pattern of delays certainly and in one case a set of records that we requested more than six months ago that we still haven't been provided.

What do you recommend is corrective action for the Sununu Youth Services Center?

Our report contains several recommendations. First, most importantly, complete full compliance with state law 1260U, and adequate training to ensure that staff, that they understand the law and techniques in order to follow it. And we also of course recommend that the Sununu Center improve its reporting and notification practices and that the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees the Sununu Center, as well as the new Child Advocate monitor intensively the use of restraint at Sununu Center to ensure that it complies with the law.

DHHS response: "The governor has called for further investigation and he and the Attorney General are proceeding."

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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