Why the Sununu Youth Services Center needs to be closed and replaced – now

Legislature must act this year to address design and construction of new facility

Sununucenterbill 1024x694

In 2021, the NH Legislature enacted a requirement in the state operating budget that the Sununu Youth Services Center (SYSC) close in March 2023. After years of legislative studies and commissions, there was a growing recognition that the 144-bed Manchester facility – populated by only about a dozen children at any given time – should be closed and replaced with a smaller, treatment-based facility.

It became clear more than a year ago that the March 2023 deadline to close SYSC would not be met. Efforts to set out parameters for the contract for its replacement failed in June 2022 when a legislative committee of conference could not come to an agreement. While the governor and Senate acted swiftly this year to address the imminent closure of SYSC by passing Senate Bill 1 in February, the bill was significantly amended by the House.

As enacted, the law includes just $1.5 million to continue operations at SYSC, $400,000 for a site evaluation for a replacement facility and creation of yet another study commission.

The Juvenile Reform Policy Group (JRPG), of which I am a member, strongly urges the Legislature to move forward this year with legislation addressing the design and construction of a therapeutic, treatment-based facility to replace SYSC.

The debate over the fate of SYSC has too often focused on the size of the current facility and its replacement, rather than on the programmatic elements that need to be considered for the treatment and rehabilitation needs of this vulnerable population, including the delivery of evidence-based, trauma-informed programming, protections, oversight, and design elements.

The ongoing uncertainty over the SYSC and plans for its replacement adds to the stress felt by both the children and staff – stress that can lead to further erosion of the very workforce the state needs to safely staff the current facility. This inaction by the Legislature further impedes delivery of appropriate care and treatment for children in the state’s care, and exacerbates the decades-long pain and trauma felt by residents of the former Youth Development Center who were victims of abuse. It is appalling for the state to be dismissive of their horrific experiences by continuing to keep SYSC open.

New Hampshire has the lowest per capita rate of combined detained and committed children in the country. We believe concerns about the SYSC replacement facility’s capacity can be addressed by imposing a cap of 12 children, unless there is an emergency, such as an unanticipated court-ordered placement, which would cause the census to exceed 12 children.

To address this possibility and also allow for the flexibility needed to safely separate children when necessary – separate sleeping areas for girls and boys, keeping co-defendants apart, managing medical, mental and behavioral health needs – a replacement facility could have 18 beds available for use when needed. The state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families has confirmed the need for this flexibility based on census data over the past few years.

The worst outcome would be to limit the capacity of a replacement facility so that DCYF would have no other option but to send vulnerable children out of state when emergency circumstances would require additional beds.

We know there are no facilities in contiguous states, or even in northern New England, that are willing and able to take New Hampshire children who have been ordered to secure detention or commitment. Without provisions for an appropriate, in-state replacement facility for SYSC, children ordered to secure placements will be sent to facilities far away from their families and communities, with limited state oversight.

This would place vulnerable children at great risk, further disconnecting them from their families and home communities and amplifying the trauma they have already experienced in their young lives.

The state cannot continue to put aside the acute and diverse needs of children who, for a brief time, require placement at a secure facility. The JRPG supports development of a new, State-owned and operated facility that meets the treatment and rehabilitation needs of these vulnerable children.

The Governor, DCYF and the Office of the Child Advocate have all publicly stated that New Hampshire needs a new secure treatment facility to replace SYSC. It is critical that the Legislature acts now to protect these children and ensure they stay close to home, and to recognize the former residents who were treated so shamefully.

Keith Kuenning of Bow is advocacy director at Waypoint. The Juvenile Reform Policy Group is an alliance of nonprofit organizations that work to support the health and well-being of New Hampshire’s children, including Waypoint, NH Legal Assistance, New Futures, Disability Rights Center-NH, ACLU-NH and the Children’s Law Center of New Hampshire.

Categories: Government, Opinion