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DCYF watchdog to investigate youth center after reported unlawful restraints

  • John H. Sununu Youth Services Center off of River Road in Manchester. Geoff Forester



Monitor staff
Wednesday, May 09, 2018

A damning report detailing alleged practices at the Sununu Youth Services Center has drawn in Moira O’Neill, the director of the newly-created Office of the Child Advocate, who says it raises questions about how the state is running the facility and that she intends to investigate herself. 

The report, released Tuesday by the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center charged that staff members have used physical restraints against children with behavioral health problems, in a practice the facility said included “multiple violations of New Hampshire law.”

In December 2016, the report alleged, staff members at the facility fractured the shoulder blade of a 14-year-old with severe ADHD and PTSD after pressing him face down on the floor.

On Wednesday, O’Neill said the allegations indicate serious problems with the level of mental health care at the Center, and fit into a pattern of complaints she has heard about the facility. As the report’s findings are investigated by the Division of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) and Attorney General’s, O’Neill intends to carry out her own facility review, she said.

“We’re going to do a facility review,” she said in an interview. “We have already begun asking questions about who’s there and what they need and what they’re getting.”

O’Neill’s investigation marks one of the first major forays in her role as the office’s first director.

Created as a watchdog over the DCYF after a pair of high profile child fatalities, the Office of the Child Advocate is charged with examining the treatment of vulnerable children by the state. In February, shortly after the death of a 6-year-old child after an apparent murder-suicide in Derry, O’Neill announced an independent probe into what the agency could have done to prevent the death.

Speaking Wednesday, O’Neill said she had heard concerns about the adequacy of mental health care at the Center, the state’s primary juvenile corrections facility, for weeks ahead of the Disability Right’s Center’s report.

“It’s been a theme of discussion when I meet people who are legislators and advocates,” she said. Those concerns had already inspired her office’s initial review; Tuesday’s report bolstered its importance, she added.

On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Sununu said the state is taking the allegations “very seriously.”

“I have asked Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeff Meyers to investigate this matter further, and have asked for regular updates as the investigation proceeds,” he said.

But O’Neill says she takes issue with how the state appears to have handled things so far. Throughout its report, the Disability Rights Center said DCYF had not promptly and accurately reported the case of the 14-year-old boy despite numerous requests for more information.

Meanwhile, she questioned the use of further review. “The response from the governor and others is that the DCYF is investigating and the Attorney General is investigating,” she said. “The Attorney General’s office already knows about this; they knew about it 2 years ago when it happened. What are you investigating if you already knew about it?”

O’Neill called for an end to the use of restraints on children at the facility, which she said have been demonstrated to not be “effective in reducing the occurance of problem behaviors” and that they exacerbate them.

“If Zach sustained an injury in a restraint, he was lucky,” she said, employing a pseudonym for the 14-year old used by the Disability Rights Center in their report. “The law against unnecessary restraints, particularly prone restraints, exists because people have died – they are dangerous.”

But speaking on the underlying issues with the Sununu Youth Services Center, O’Neill said the solution comes down to adequate mental health care. The Center is facing a transition; lawmakers last year ordered its bed count reduced and some of its residents moved to alternative placement facilities.

While the steps are positive, the conditions and training for workers at the facility should be improved, O’Neill said.

“Any staff assigned to care for children with mental illness in any setting must be trained to recognize behavior as (a) symptom of underlying illness,” she said. “No illness is ever effectively treated with violence.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)