The Office of the Child Advocate says New Hampshire is making progress in reforming the foster and juvenile justice systems, but some say the state isn't moving fast enough.
At a juvenile justice forum on Friday at the statehouse, advocates touted a group of child welfare bills signed this month by Governor Sununu.
SB 6 increases funding for DCYF caseworkers doing home visits, and SB 14 expands access to mental and behavioral health services for children whose behavior and family circumstances puts them at risk for institutionalization.
One of the forum’s presenters, Jane Tewksbury praised New Hampshire for its low rates of youth incarceration. The state has fewer than 25 young people currently locked up at the Sununu Youth Services Center (SYSC), a secure detention facility in Manchester.
Tewksbury, a former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services and member of the Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice (YCLI), a juvenile justice reform group at Columbia University, urged New Hampshire to continue investing in behavioral and mental health resources to keep its youth detention numbers low.
“We are tasked in juvenile justice to work with a child who has come to us through a trauma history and multiple failed placements,” she said. “But the best investment in long-term public safety is to address the underlying issues that lead to the delinquent behavior in the first place. And one size does not fit all."
Patrick McCarthy, a juvenile justice expert and member of YCLI, recently interviewed dozens of people working in child welfare and juvenile justice in New Hampshire. He warned of the large number of youth - around 400 - currently in group residential placements across the state. About half of them are involved in the juvenile justice system.
Group homes have been seen as a less punitive option for troubled youth, but the homes cost the state tens of millions of dollars, and McCarthy said they don’t always provide appropriate trauma-informed care.
Staff connected with the Sununu Youth Services Center told McCarthy that youth in detention had typically been in group residential placements seven times before reaching the SYSC, which many reform advocates in New Hampshire refer to as “kid jail.”
McCarthy said the number of failed placements are a red flag.
“If you respond to somebody who’s been traumatized by trying to restrict them more and more, they don’t respond well,” he said. “And yet your system seems to do exactly that. Kids start at one level of restriction and if they don’t behave, as kids with trauma often don’t, then it gets worse and worse and more restrictive.”
Moira O’Neill, the director of the Office of the Child Advocate, pointed to a new federal law aimed at improving state oversight over group homes. The Family First Prevention Services Act will also allow New Hampshire to spend federal funds typically used on group home placement and foster care on prevention and treatment services.
New Hampshire has two years to be in compliance with the new law, but a group of teens said this wasn’t fast enough.
“I want to know what you guys are going to do, because we’ve been failed so many times,” said Shania Nabors, standing beside three young women from Davenport, a group home and treatment program in Jefferson.
Nabors said she has been shuffled among foster care families and group homes since she was 3. She told NHPR she was grateful for the support at Davenport, but that she struggled with the isolation of state placements.
“I wish I had a childhood with a real family where I could go to a public school and have a regular life. I just graduated high school from a placement; I didn’t go to a real high school. I graduated with a class of four people,” she said.
Nabors and her peers urged advocates to concentrate on what services would keep kids out of the foster care and juvenile justice system to begin with. Clarissa, who withheld her last name for privacy, told advocates that she and her peers had not gotten support when they most needed it, and were now being punished for their parents’ mistakes.
“I went to school at eight years old drunk, because that’s what I was taught,” she said. “At the end of the day, we were just kids who weren’t taught right or wrong.”
Allie Reyes said those lessons didn’t come through at Sununu Youth Services Center either. Reyes lived at SYSC several years ago and said staff were not prepared to support kids in trauma.
“I know it’s gotten better since I was there,” she said, “But it’s hard to change if you’re in a place where you’re not valued.”
Juvenile justice reform advocates and lawmakers have disagreed for years over the fate of the Sununu Youth Services Center, which, in spite of dwindling numbers, is due to receive over $24 million in the House and Senate version of next year’s budget.