As state plans for new youth center, officials weigh role of law enforcement

Inadequate staffing at Hampstead Hospital burdens police force, but improvements show promise
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The state is planning for a new youth detention center in Hampstead, on the grounds of an existing mental health facility. (Photo by Alli Fam, NHPR)

As New Hampshire moves forward with plans for a new youth detention center in Hampstead, officials are considering how they might rely on police for help in emergency situations — as they also work to reduce the need to involve law enforcement.

The new detention center is expected to be built on the grounds of Hampstead Hospital, a state-run psychiatric facility for youth. With space for up to 18 beds, the new center is meant to replace the much larger Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, which is the subject of abuse allegations going back decades, and provide a more therapeutic environment.

Public safety officials met Wednesday in Concord, as part of ongoing efforts to plan for the new facility.

Hampstead Deputy Police Chief Robert Kelley said his department is already responding to a number of calls related to Hampstead Hospital, including when youth run away. New Hampshire State Police are supposed to be the primary law enforcement agency responding to the state-run facility — but the force is short-handed, with almost 70 vacancies, and troopers are often stationed at least 30 minutes away.

“So anything that is an immediate response required, 99% of the time, Hampstead Police Department responds out and they handle the initial crisis,” he said.

Kelley said his department has good relationships with state police and hospital officials, but the extra calls can be a burden on a small force with just one or two officers on duty at any given time.

“There are bumps in the road, and we need to work through those and come up with solutions,” he said, “because ultimately we are talking about a cross section of New Hampshire’s residents who are the most vulnerable.”

He noted that some of those calls could be avoided if Hampstead Hospital were fully staffed — something hospital officials say they’re actively working on.

State Police Staff Sgt. Joseph Ronchi is the assistant commander of the Troop A barracks, whose coverage area includes Hampstead. He commended local police for picking up the slack.

But, he added, “I do not believe it is sustainable, because Hampstead Police are continuously helping with incidents that should not be their own responsibility.”

He said improvements in Hampstead Hospital staffing should reduce police call volume over time, though it’s hard to predict the impact of adding the youth detention center.

Additionally, he said Troop A would likely need an additional detective to handle juvenile cases that arise from incidents at the new detention facility.

The group that met Wednesday is a public safety-focused subcommittee of a broader commission assessing the potential impacts of the new youth center on local communities. It’s tasked with making recommendations to the Legislature by Nov. 1.

Department of Safety Assistant Commissioner Eddie Edwards chairs the subcommittee. He said the group’s priority is making sure the facility is safe and well-staffed — which should reduce the need to call police in the first place.

“We want to reduce the need, the burden for state police responding to a detention center like this, as well as the local police department,” he said. “The goal really is to have proper staffing there, to have the proper resources in place there to make sure that young people are properly serviced and taken care of.”

The new center is expected to open by the end of 2025, according to Jake Leon, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

Last year, police were called to multiple incidents at the Sununu Youth Services Center. Officials say that was partly because of inadequate staffing at the youth detention facility.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Sununu Center officials said those calls are way down since last fall, after they’ve made various improvements in physical security and staffing.

Samantha Morin, who oversees the center’s treatment programs, said better programming for the youth housed there has also made a difference.

“Their daily schedule has more activity in it following school,” she said. “They’re engaging in therapeutic groups, including things like life skills, art therapy, music therapy. We have a substance use and trauma group that the youth engage in.”

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