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N.H. lawmakers get consultants’ report on new facility to replace Sununu Youth Services Center

A photo of the Sununu Youth Services Center sign
Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR
Debate over the center’s future began years ago, but it has come to a head amid recent abuse allegations made by more than 350 men and women who say they were physically or sexually abused as children by 150 staffers at the state’s facility from 1960 to 2018.

New Hampshire’s sprawling youth detention center should be replaced with a much smaller facility designed and staffed as a residential treatment home instead of a prison, according to a consultant’s report presented to lawmakers Thursday.

The state currently spends $13 million a year to operate the 144-bed Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, though the typical population now is about a dozen teens. The two-year budget signed in June included a mandate to close it by March 2023, and a legislative committee has been studying how to replace it.

The report members received Thursday from Alvarez & Marsal Public Sector Services of Washington, D.C., recommends an 18-bed facility with a single-story “group home” design, a gymnasium, interior courtyard and multipurpose rooms. Dining areas should have round tables to encourage conversation, and the overall environment should be positive and home-like, the report states.

The report also recommends an overhaul of the facility’s staffing structure, which it said remains based on a correctional facility model. That may require hiring new staff with backgrounds in social work or education instead of those with experience in adult corrections, the consultants said.

“New Hampshire will no longer operate a ‘juvenile correctional facility,’ it will be providing a ‘residential behavioral treatment’ program,” the report states.

Programming also should be adjusted, the consultants said. They referred to a recent state audit of the facility, which found that two of its core therapeutic programs had never been evaluated for effectiveness among youth and a third consisted of “a compilation of worksheets and information that appeared to have come from different sources and was not bound together by an empirically-based program.”

Since that audit, the state has been preparing to implement a new behavior management approach that is among the programs recommended by the consultants.

Debate over the center’s future began years ago, but it has come to a head amid recent abuse allegations made by more than 350 men and women who say they were physically or sexually abused as children by 150 staffers at the state’s facility from 1960 to 2018. The state Division for Children, Youth and Families is cooperating with a broad criminal investigation launched in 2019, and 11 former workers have been arrested since April.

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