(Opinion) What does the future hold for the kids?
It seems we have lost sight of the kids and their immediate needs
The state’s only juvenile correctional treatment facility has been the subject of controversy. Amidst all the controversy, however, it seems we have lost sight of the kids and their immediate needs. Who are these kids? What do they need?
The controversy does not change the need to provide high-quality care and treatment to the state’s most vulnerable kids. Residential programs are costly, and the frequent disruptions to a child’s life and education often prove to be a major obstacle to their progress, as opposed to a catalyst for change.
The challenges associated with helping these kids will not go away once the debate about the location and size of a program are settled.
“You get what you pay for” is a somewhat universal statement that is more nuanced in the discussion about human services. Investment in kids who display problematic behaviors and even commit serious crimes is not glamorous, especially in a state that prides itself on fiscal responsibility. We know the long-term costs of failing to understand and invest in this population leads to unsuccessful outcomes and more expensive consequences for our communities.
In my experience working with kids at the Sununu Youth Services Center (SYSC), I discovered many of them have suffered numerous Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and have complex trauma histories, including lengthy child protection involvement. Despite their unique experiences, they are still just teenagers, a group known for making questionable decisions. They are intelligent, talented, athletic and artistic. They want to be viewed as worthy individuals with potential for success. We often hear them being defined by negative behavior, but they are insightful, capable and resilient.
These kids have been to an average of seven “out-of-home” placements prior to being committed to SYSC. The challenges in their lives have led them to system involvement, but it takes adults to recognize their strengths to find ways to motivate them. Youth counselors, directly working with these kids, can be the trusted, caring adults if offered the resources and support to manage the complexity of this work. By no means is this an easy career path. It is essential to invest in the workforce, so the staff feel valued and can provide the highest quality of care.
It is crucial to keep the kids’ needs at the forefront and invest early on in mental and behavioral health supports, education and vocational opportunities that follow kids into their home communities. Kids themselves have shared with me that they want treatment and the ability to stay connected to their families, schools and friends.
Seeing firsthand how these services benefit kids has helped me understand the power of community connections. I have witnessed “at-risk” kids flourish when they have a consistent caring adult, and they are given the opportunity to reintegrate into their community.
Any plan for SYSC should have kids, not the facility or the cost, at the forefront. As the state works through the challenges of what to do with SYSC, let us not forget its true purpose: safe therapeutic rehabilitation and comprehensive treatment to allow for future success in their home communities.
I urge all lawmakers to visit the facility, get to know the kids, ask questions of the staff, and inquire about the resources needed to improve their program. New Hampshire is fortunate to have bipartisan support for a trauma-informed model of care in all facilities that service kids. If leadership is willing to move forward with plans for programming that prioritizes positive development, we can finally build a facility that can be a source of pride for our great state.