N.H. officials say reports of unlawful restraint at Sununu Center are ‘unfounded and irresponsible’

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

Monitor staff
Published: 5/15/2018 5:48:40 PM

State officials rejected accusations that the Sununu Youth Services Center is rife with abuse and the staff illegally uses physical restraint against the children in their care, saying the center is committed to providing a safe environment for the state’s most at-risk youth.

Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers said reports of abuse at the state-run facility in Manchester are “unfounded and irresponsible” in a response released Tuesday.

Last week the Disability Rights Center issued a report accusing the center’s staff of using physical restraint against children with behavioral health problems amounting to “multiple violations of New Hampshire law.”

The report detailed an episode in 2016 involving a 14-year-old identified as Zach with severe anxiety and PTSD whose shoulder blade was fractured during the incident with staff.

One of the youth counselors, Richard Gilbert, “threw Zach to the ground, put his knee on Zach’s back to hold him down, put his hand on Zach’s head, and pressed his face against the ground,” according to the report.

Officials with the Division for Children, Youth and Families said the May 8 report “contains numerous factual errors, unsupported conclusions, and incorrect statements of law.”

In the 2016 incident, Zach was “aggressively pushing” and tripped over a youth counselor’s leg leading to all three individuals landing on the ground, which was accidental, state officials said.

MacDonald and Meyers said an investigation by the Department of Justice shortly after the incident found no indication of abuse and neglect by Gilbert or the other staff members. They said that DYCF has long supported reducing the use of restraint at the juvenile facility.

“The department is committed to providing a safe and therapeutic environment for the state’s most at risk youth,” Meyers wrote. “The lack of objectivity and fairness in DRC’s report creates obstacles to the state’s goal of working collaboratively to identify and improve the services it provides to New Hampshire’s youth.”

“Unfortunately, DRC’s approach to this serious issue serves only to enflame a sensitive subject rather than advance our work toward a common goal.”

DCYF officials also touted a lack of other incidents involving harm to children at the facility.

“There were no serious injuries, outside of those included in the DRC’s report, that have occurred since 2010,” they said.

Furthermore, DCYF officials said, the use of employees’ names in the Disability Rights Center report “places an unnecessary and unfair burden on them as individuals and professionals and potentially creates a personal safety risk.”

However, Gilbert’s name comes up in a 2013 lawsuit that said he and two other staff members physically assaulted a patient in 2012, fracturing that minor’s face.

The juvenile sustained “fractures to his face and other physical and emotional injuries, causing ... pain and suffering,” according to a complaint filed in District Court in May 2013.

The suit says staff members’ actions were done “intentionally, maliciously, and sadistically, with a deliberate indifference to the rights of the plaintiff.”

The case was settled in September 2015. Terms of the settlement were not publicly disclosed.

In a statement Tuesday, DRC-NH Executive Director Stephanie Patrick said the Disability Rights Center stands by the results of its finding of abuse at the Sununu Youth Services Center.

“Although we are not surprised the agency that operates this facility has publicly justified its actions, we are hopeful that it will follow our recommendations and improve its response to children who have emotional behavioral disorders who are in this facility,” Patrick said.

Moira O’Neill, the director of the newly created Office of the Child Advocate, said she intends to carry out her own review of Sununu Youth Services Center restraint practices.

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, lwillingham@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)

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