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As the Sununu Youth Services Center closure deadline looms, there's no clear plan for relocating at-risk N.H. juveniles

Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, N.H.
Dan Tuohy
Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, N.H.

Last year, lawmakers gave the state Department of Health and Human Services until March 1, 2023, to close the Sununu Youth Services Center and relocate the five to 10 juveniles typically detained there. Last week, they killed the bill that would have given the department the money, guidance, and authority to meet that deadline.

Unless lawmakers fast-track legislation next session extending the deadline, the department will have to send juveniles out of state if it can’t find other options here. “I think we have to (move quickly) because this state would be at a lot of risk if we haven’t done something” before March 1, said Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat, who’s worked on this issue for years.

In an emailed statement, Health and Human Services spokesman Jake Leon indicated the agency sees no other option but to get approval from the Legislature to build a new facility.

“The state continues to have an obligation to provide children with an appropriate level of care in an appropriate setting,” he said. “Adjudicated youth in New Hampshire must be committed or detained in an appropriate setting. As (the Sununu Youth Services Center) is the only facility in the state that meets this standard, and out-of-state alternatives are largely unavailable and certainly not in a child or family’s best interest, we remain committed to securing a legislative resolution prior to March 2023.”

Both chambers passed Senate Bill 458, but each made changes the other ultimately would not accept. A last-ditch effort Thursday to find compromise failed when House negotiators insisted a new facility have only 12 beds and their Senate counterparts insisted there be 12 with an option to add six. Rosenwald argued the additional beds would provide space for an increase in admissions but would be intended to provide space to separate children for safety reasons.

To mitigate concerns the department would fill the extra beds on a regular basis, Rosenwald proposed allowing the department to hire enough staff to oversee only 12 children, not 18.

“I’m thinking of this as a number of beds more than a number of kids,” she said Thursday during House and Senate negotiations. “If we allow them to staff to 18, guess what? They will.”

Late Thursday afternoon, Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican and chair of the committee negotiating a resolution, concluded the disagreement over beds was insurmountable.

“I don’t see a meeting of the minds on this particular issue,” she told the committee. “I think we are at an impasse.”

The demise of SB 458 came after months of negotiations among lawmakers, Health and Human Services, and legal advocates. After a number of amendments, the bill gained the support of child advocates.

“It’s better. It really is better,” Karen Rosenberg, policy director for the Disability Rights Center in New Hampshire, told lawmakers during the meeting. “Perfection is the day where every kid gets their treatment before they even commit any kind of offense and we never have any kids there. I wish we were there. We are not there.”

In an email Friday, Rosenberg said her organization is concerned there is no plan for after the center closes.

“We are disappointed that the Legislature was not able to compromise on a solution that would enable the smooth transition from (the Sununu Youth Services Center) to a therapeutic, publicly operated facility,” she said. “Since, under current law, (the center) is due to close on March 1, 2023, we are concerned that, without a suitable in-state alternative, the needs of some of New Hampshire’s most vulnerable children will not be met.”

There’s long been bipartisan support for closing the 144-bed Sununu Youth Services Center, a locked facility in Manchester for court-involved juveniles ages 13 to 17. The size of a new facility has been the roadblock.

In an effort to reduce the need for a large juvenile detention facility, lawmakers have taken steps in the last few years to divert children away from the center and toward in-home treatment and support services for them and their families. Lawmakers also tightened the types of offenses that make a child eligible for commitment and established the Office of the Child Advocate, an independent watchdog over the state’s handling of juvenile cases.

SB 458 would have further limited the ability of courts to commit youth and expand their ability to seek alternative resolutions. The bill would have required the state to operate the facility, a priority for child welfare advocates who said privatizing it would restrict the state’s ability to monitor the treatment of residents.

Sen. Gary Daniels, a Milford Republican, sponsored SB 458 based on the recommendations of a study committee he chaired this summer. Those recommendations included a state-run, locked, 18-bed facility with a home-like design where juveniles received therapeutic and trauma-informed care.

In an interview, Daniels said he expects work on another attempt at a solution will begin soon.

“I think the Legislature and the department are going to have a lot of work to do this summer,” he said, “and try to work out a solution that’s going to meet the directive that’s been given by the Legislature” to close the facility by March 1, 2023.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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