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State bill to examine concerns over juvenile detention center

A group of state lawmakers is working to revive a long-dormant advisory board that would monitor conditions and reshape procedures at the Sununu Youth Development Center, following complaints from employees and former residents over lagging punitive standards.

The group, led by Republican Sen. Sharon Carson, has introduced legislation that would both expand the size and scope of the board and establish a new hiring process for future directors of the juvenile detention facility, which is located in Manchester.

Carson, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told a House committee Tuesday that she has been fielding concerns for months that the center’s continued shift toward treatment-based rehabilitation has come at the expense of safety and correctional measures.

“I’ve had people come to my house about things that were happening,” she said, without describing specific complaints.

Diana Lacey, president of the State Employees’ Association, said staff have expressed frustration over new rules that limit their ability to isolate or otherwise remove violent residents from daily routine.

“There are some instances where the youth who is the victim is going to the staff and saying, ‘I don’t know why I bothered to tell you because I walked into my next class and there (the assailant) was,’ ” Lacey said.

Lacey said employees have reported more frequent assaults by residents, and some have complained that they were told by supervisors to alter their reports documenting such incidents. (Lacey’s group is also at odds with the division over pending cuts to the salaries of teachers at the facility.)

Maggie Bishop, director of the Division of Children, Youth and Families, which oversees juvenile justice in the state, acknowledged that some employees were initially slow to accept changes at the center, but said many have since warmed up to them. She said the rate of violent incidents has in fact dropped “dramatically” since she first took over three years ago – down from about six or seven per day to just one or two per week.

Bishop said 85 percent of residents suffer from mental health and/or substance abuse issues, and that the push to prioritize treatment has been reflective of that. Unruly residents are no longer immediately locked in their rooms or physically detained, and counselors are increasingly working to help them recognize their own escalations and alert staff before they spiral out of control, she said.

“We realized that you can’t treat a child who is misbehaving because of a mental illness the same way as you do one who is just acting out to act out,” she said, adding that in her opinion, the facility is “as safe as it can be, given the population we’re working with.”

As for modifications to the incident reports, she said staff have been directed to document only what they witnessed, rather than what they might have perceived to have happened.

The oversight committee that Carson’s bill would revive has existed for years, but until the complaints surfaced last summer, its members had not convened a meeting in nearly a decade. The board would grow considerably under the bill’s current language to include legislators, representatives from the various agencies linked to juvenile justice, county jail officials, attorneys and a facility spokesperson selected by the staff.

Two other provisions would give the board authority to define the facility’s mission and would mandate that the facility’s director become a governor-appointed position with specific qualifications. The facility has cycled through a handful of directors in recent years – Bishop oversees the facility through DCYF, but its director is Penny Sampson, a former lower-level employee in the clinical division – and Carson said the changes would ensure greater stability and accountability.

Carson said bringing local jail officials on board would also make certain that the center was meeting all of its correctional obligations.

Bishop said she was open to some additional oversight, though the division opposes the other two provisions.

“I think actually having that oversight would make people feel more sure that, yeah, we can go clinical but also make sure the facility is safe and secure,” she told the committee.

The Sununu center opened in 2006 and has been somewhat underutilized in the years since. It houses an average of 60 residents, despite having capacity for nearly 140. That number could grow, however, pending the outcome of a bill now in the Senate that would increase the juvenile age to 17.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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