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Group Homes Prepare for Effects of Changes to Sununu Youth Center

courtesy of the Webster House

There’s a current shortage of beds in group homes throughout New Hampshire. In fact, 22 homes have closed in the past six years, and only 21 group homes are remaining.

Lou Catano is the executive director of The Webster House, a children’s home in Manchester. Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Catano about House Bill 517, which will go into effect at the beginning of the year, and its potential impact on group homes in the state.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Can you tell us how this law is going to affect group homes in the state, like yours?

Yes, my biggest concern right now is that it goes into effect in January, and there really hasn’t been enough time to really put it into practice, you know, all the exact community resources that need to be there to support this. The second biggest concern I have is that we’re redefining what it takes to commit a child to the youth service center.

This is the Sununu Youth Center. That’s the facility for children who have been ruled as delinquent, correct?

Correct, and by redefining that and limiting it only to serious violent offenders, that means all other folks that used to be committed there now, will now be placed in the community. I get concerned about safety issues. I get concerned about disruptions of treatment when you have those children that used to be going to the Sununu Center are now in community settings. They’re more likely to run away because it’s a non-secure facility. That’s going to interrupt their treatment. It’s also going to greatly downshift costs out into the community. There’ll be probably more police involvement, more difficulties in the communities and the schools, in emergency rooms and mental health centers.

You’re worried about obviously for both the children and the community homes that these children might be involved in, but also you’re talking about downshifting costs. What was the original intention of this bill? Was it to lessen state resources that need to go into the youth center?

I mean right now, the state is on the hook for every dollar that’s spent at Sununu Youth Center. If in fact, children are place in the community, all the community centers are Medicaid reimbursable. So at least 50-60 percent of the costs will now be picked up by the feds. So there is a potential cost saving there, but I think it’s an illusion. But one of the big concerns I have too from just being in some of these meetings prior to this bill being passed is the notion that if you lower the beds, the amount of children that end up there, they’re going to get better treatment in the community, and I don’t see the connection. I applaud the fact that people are looking at trying to do better jobs in prevention and keep kids from going down these paths, but I don’t see this as the answer.

The legislature did appropriate funds in the state budget for all group homes in the state to receive a 5 percent rate increase. I know this is the first rate increase in some nine years. How will this benefit group homes in the state, and is it enough in your opinion?

It’s a good start. It’s a welcomed start. It is, I hate to say it, not enough. I can just speak from Webster House’s perspective. We probably have to raise $350,000-$400,000 every year to make our budget work. So the 5 percent raise was welcomed, but it’s certainly, grossly inadequate to cover what we’re asked to do. And then if we will be having kids that used to go to the Sununu Youth Center now filtering into our programs, they are going to be putting a lot more demand on our resources, and the 5 percent is not going to really touch that.

 What do you think the state should be doing instead to address non serious violent youth, like those children who would have been admitted to the Sununu Youth Center?

I’m a believer, after working at Webster House for 33 years, and I’ve been in the field for close to 40 years total, that unfortunately there is a population that does need to be in a secure facility. And just to reduce that number, for some kids that’s not going to be helpful for them. I’ve heard kids tell me numerous times over the years, the only reason I’m trying to get my act together and get back on a good path is because I have the Sununu Youth [Services] Center hanging over my head. I don’t want to go there, or maybe, I don’t want to go back there. And to now make it extremely difficult to get back there, or even to get in the door, I think we’re giving the wrong message to the kids. I think we need to spend more money on prevention, more early intervention with these kids, before we get to the point where we’re looking at do they need incarceration or not. 

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