Officials eye new close date for New Hampshire youth center
A New Hampshire lawmaker on Friday proposed extending the March deadline to close the state's troubled youth detention center amid concerns that the current timeline would endanger public safety.
Debate over the future of the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester began years ago, but has come to a boil amid horrific sexual abuse allegations. Frustrated with spending $13 million a year to operate a 144-bed facility for about a dozen teens, lawmakers set a mandatory March 1 closing date. But the center's fate remains unclear after lawmakers were unable to agree this year on how to replace it.
Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, said Friday he plans to introduce two bills for the legislative session that starts in January: one to extend the deadline by three months and another that calls for a new 12 to 14 bed facility, with room for 18 if necessary. He told Deputy Health Commissioner Lori Weaver that he is concerned about what will happen March 1 without such measures.
"The Legislature let you down," he said. "We just could not reach agreement so we gave you nothing to go on in terms of money to plan and design it."
Weaver said she can't predict the center's population six months in advance, but based on the current situation, "there would be a definite impact on public safety" if the deadline arrived without further guidance.
"If that was to happen today, I could tell you that there would be public risk for some of these youth to be placed in situations that would be not only unsafe for them, but potentially for the community as well," she said Friday at a meeting of the Health and Human Services Oversight Committee.
The youth center, named for former Gov. John H. Sununu, has been the target of a criminal investigation since 2019, and 11 former workers were arrested last year. The state recently set up a $100 million fund to settle claims brought by nearly 450 former residents who have sued the state with abuse allegations involving more than 150 staffers from 1963 to 2018.
In recent weeks, police responded to the facility several times to help staff deal with disturbances. Weaver told lawmakers the incidents weren't unusual, but serious understaffing coupled with "the toughest kids" created a "perfect storm" that required outside help. Lawmakers recently approved salary enhancements for staff, but recruiting remains a challenge given the looming closure date, she said.
"I think there's a lot of people that want to come and help and work," she said, adding that the closure date is "overshadowing the facility for sure."