After Decline in Detainees, Sununu Youth Center Moves Toward Drug Treatment

Sep 28, 2018

The Sununu Youth Services Center, a Manchester-based juvenile detention facility, will now provide services to teens struggling with substance use disorder. 

The Department of Health and Human Services says it will be a residential facility with 36 beds that will be run by a non-governmental organization. The center has undergone several changes within the past year after lawmakers passed legislation related to juvenile justice reform, and it's population has declined.

NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers about the center's future. 

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

First, let's remind listeners of some of the changes that the Sununu Youth Services Center has undergone within the past year. How did that legislation passed by lawmakers change the definition of who ends up in the detention center?

Yeah, it's a very good question. You know it was a very significant change made in the last budget trailer bill, and as part of that they redefined the category of youth that was eligible to go directly to the Sununu Youth Services Center if they were detained or committed for a particular crime. So starting last January only those youth that are considered a serious violent offender or basically who have been adjudicated for serious felonies. So murder, arson, rape and so forth could be sent by a circuit court judge, could be committed directly to the Sununu Youth Services Center, and that youth who were detained on those similar serious offenses could be detained there. All others would now be placed in alternative placement capacity in the community. So prior to this change in law the average daily census was running up around 60-65 depending on how many kids were detained, and it's dropped considerably. Right now, it's running around 30 a day between those committed and those detained. That law has now been in place for some number of months. So we have seen the impact at least partially.

So this has left the center partially unused?

It's never really been at capacity for some time now. But right now we're seeing really an average daily census of around 30, which is obviously a significant change. That led last year, also in the legislature, to a discussion about how we could stand up additional services there. And there emerged a consensus that we should go forward with a 36-bed residential drug treatment unit. It would be the only facility in the state like that that would treat adolescent substance use disorder. It's a very significant development for the state of New Hampshire.

There was money set aside in the budget to undertake renovations. We wanted to ensure that that center was eligible for Medicaid reimbursement so the federal government would be paying some of the cost of the services delivered there. And in order to do that, we had to essentially bifurcate that wing of the facility. So we had to create a separate entrance. We had to make changes to the parking lot. We had to stand up some new internal walls. That's now been completed, and I anticipate bringing a contract to the governor and [Executive Council] within the next few weeks with an outside vendor who would actually run and provide the services.

It would be a private vendor, a private organization?

It will be a private organization, correct.

So when you talk about some of the changes that were made to in order to qualify for that federal money, it's not a secure facility per se?

That's right, the drug treatment center is not a secure facility. So although there is a process in place in statute now where youth who are committed or are detained at [Sununu Youth Services Center] who need to access those services, and who are determined upon evaluation to require those services, while they can go there, it's also possible for the center to serve kids who are not detained or committed.

They may not have been through the judicial court system?

That's correct. It's really, it's an adolescent substance use treatment center.

Let's talk about the future though with the facility. There's always lots of talk in the legislature about should we keep this going, should this facility be closed down ultimately. We've talked about declining population. Given that declining use in the center over all, does it make sense to put this money into opening this – albeit separate pod of 36 beds – given the uncertain future of the [Sununu Youth Services Center]?

You know there's a really interesting confluence of views within the present legislature. There are some who feel that the expenditure of general funds should be reduced there, given the factors you just mentioned, the fact that we're only using a certain portion of it. There are others who believe that all youth should be really treated in the community and not at a centralized secure facility. There was a statute passed last session, House Bill 1743. It established a new commission to take a look at the future use of the [Sununu Youth Services Center]. What I'm concerned about is that the legislature in the last couple of budget cycles has attempted to create a cliff. That is they've cut off funding with the assumption that a department can then make available within the community all of the services that would replace those that are provided at the [Sununu Youth Services Center]. And I think that's what's not working, and I think we've clawed that back a little bit. We got some additional funding at the end of last session so that we can operate it safely for the staff for the youth that are there.

I acknowledge that how our juvenile youth justice system is structured in New Hampshire is a legitimate topic for debate and discussion. But I think it's going to be critical after the election for the next governor, the next legislature, all the stakeholders across the state to really engage in a meaningful dialogue about what they want the system to look like. And if they do want to go in a different direction, and I'm not sure we're ready to do that yet, I think we would have to have considerably more services stood up and capacity stood up in the community.

Even with the declining population, you think that this is still a necessary facility to have?

There are kids who have violent behavior. And you know, we're not suggesting that they can't be rehabilitated. We want to rehabilitate all those kids. But there are kids that are in there that have committed serious crimes, and who act out and who are violent at times. And our current system of 13 residential providers aren't necessarily capable of handling –

These are smaller facilities that are scattered throughout the state.

Exactly, so they're small facilities that are in various parts of the state. They do a great job at what they do by and large, but they don't have the capabilities necessary to handle kids that are violent. And what's happened, in part because of the change in law where the number of kids who can initially be assigned to [the Sununu Youth Services Center] has been restricted some, there are some residential facilities that have actually brought youth to a hospital emergency department believing that they should be involuntary admitted to New Hampshire Hospital, when in fact they don't have mental illness. What they have are behavior issues. And so we're putting a stress on the hospital emergency departments now, as a result of the change that was made I think a little too soon in terms of changing the law. So I think we've got to really sit down. I think everybody has got to come together. If any policy is going to be successful, it has to be supported by a consensus by all concerned including, as I said the legislature, the governor, the Child Advocate's Office, stakeholders, municipalities across the state and so forth.