NH Juvenile Justice: Life inside the Sununu Center

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 06-06-2023 10:21 AM

Jerry Rocha steps through a metal detector and then waits for a large secured door to unlock each morning. Next, he enters into a small holding space. And once the first door locks behind him, he can push open the next.

He walks into a well-lit reception area with a glass skylight overhead. Sculptures hang from the ceiling, and bulletin boards decorate the walls. Off of this rotunda, behind glass walls, lies a library, a snack bar and long, wide hallways with rubber paneled tiling.

Welcome to the John H. Sununu Youth Services Center.

It’s the only youth detention center in the state, where Rocha serves as director. In a large building on a sprawling 150-acre campus, the Sununu Center or YDC, as it used to be known, houses New Hampshire youth ages 13 to 17 who are involuntarily detained. Some face serious criminal charges.

For many children who were held there it was a house of horrors, where they endured torture, like solitary confinement, and gang rape at the hands of the state employees. Today, decades of abuse at the center have surfaced in 850 lawsuits against the state and hundreds of employees, with legislators approving a $100 million settlement fund for victims in 2022.

In 2021, Gov. Chris Sununu, whose father’s name is on the Manchester facility, signed a biennial state budget that mandated the building’s closure by March 2023. For a building that has a capacity of 144 beds, there’s only a dozen residents on average.

Now that date has come and gone. And after a legislative showdown this year, a new end date is in sight – March 2024.

Advocates say that the additional year will allow the state to finalize plans for a new, smaller facility that houses a maximum of 18 children at a time. But until that plan comes to fruition, it’s up to Department of Health and Human Services employees to transform the sprawling facility into the small, therapeutic space they envision.

Inside the building

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A typical morning at the Sununu Center starts like a day in high school, except no one goes home at night. Breakfast in the cafeteria, at circular tables with chairs anchored to the floor, followed by class at 8:30 a.m.

In each classroom desks are lined in rows, with lessons spelled out on white boards. In the hallways, photos of graduation ceremonies decorate bulletin boards.

It’s back in the cafeteria for lunch, with a break some days calling for a dodgeball game or other activities in the gym.

At 2:30 p.m., comprehensive mental health services begin.

Each individual plan is created after an intake process that includes a medical, mental health and suicide assessment screening. They include group therapy, individual sessions, substance abuse counseling, life planning sessions, family therapy and art therapy, among other offerings.

Every child at the Sununu Center has either been detained, accused of committing a delinquency act (a felony or misdemeanor at the adult level) or committed, meaning that a judge has ordered them to be held at the secure facility.

That means white cinder block walls becomes their new bedroom. A desk and chair sit under a small window. A wooden bedframe with a mattress is pushed into the corner of the room.

Belongings are handed in – their clothes traded for white shirts and khaki pants.

Sununu Center residents can decorate their room with photos and posters, but most of the white cinder block is untouched.

It’s hard to conceptualize how such a large building built to hold more than 100 residents now holds about a dozen at a time. As a result, most of the facility is unused with more rooms empty than occupied.

The building houses an Olympic-sized swimming pool, now drained. An auto body shop and woodworking space sit untouched. And in an industrial-sized kitchen, Rocha turns on the lights when he steps into the vacant space where knives are locked in protective cases and mixing bowls sit empty.

To engage kids in treatment – untangling years of trauma that occurred during some of their lowest moments of their lives – research shows this restorative care is best done in a home-like setting.

Rooms should be small. Spaces should be comfortable. Conversation shouldn’t turn to criticism, nor should punishment, if needed, be punitive.

So how do you do that in a cinder-block built building that can house more than a hundred kids than it currently caters to?

The answer is it’s hard. And in a way, nearly impossible.

A new approach

In winter, snowmen often populate the courtyard that’s located in the middle of the Sununu Center facility. In the spring, soccer balls or kickballs linger in the grass after a game.

But some days, the outdoor space is home to horses. It’s part of equine therapy that’s available for residents.

In the last year, the center has hired two new full-time clinicians who provide individual counseling, group therapy and sessions specific to substance abuse, if needed.

It’s all part of an overhaul of the system with the goal of helping children transition out faster and begin to address personal traumas.

“We looked at strengthening our clinical approach,” said Rocha, who became director last August. “It’s been a lot of revamping in the programming itself for the last several months to a year.

Rocha himself has a masters degree in counseling. And Samantha Morin, who has served as the lead forensic psychologist at the center for three years, holds a doctorate in clinical psychology.

Prior to Rocha and Morin’s tenure at the center, the approach was often punitive, according to the Office of the Child Advocate. Even in the midst of a mental health crisis, children were often critiqued rather than cared for.

Now Cassandra Sanchez, the state’s child advocate who oversees the child welfare and juvenile justice system, sees that clinical work is at the forefront.

“For a long time there’s been the struggle, especially with the leadership, of letting clinical take the lead,” she said. “I had seen in the past, six plus months ago, where they were kids who were suicidal because they were really struggling and then we would see an incident report within a consequence because they were suicidal.”

At the State House, bills this legislative session have passed the House and the Senate to eliminate both seclusion, where a child is held alone in a room with restricted exits, and the use of a prone restraint, where the child is held face-down on the floor.

The use of restraints and punishments is a frequent complaint from residents, according to Sanchez.

Her office hosts confidential sessions with youths in the center where they can report incidents and share their experience.

The Sununu Center has its own ombudsman, but when a child reports an incident, the staff member involved will be notified of the complaint filed. Often, this means that youths are fearful of retaliation if they report anything.

“We allow them those opportunities to come and speak with us,” said Sanchez. “Having that door open, it’s really powerful to our oversight work that we’re doing. And to really be able to gather true facts of what the experience is for the kids when they’re in the facility.”

For many kids in the Sununu Center compounding issues – poverty, abuse, mental health challenges, instability at home – often build on top of each other.

“I’d say over 90 to 100% of our kids come in with multiple traumas,” said Morin. “Understanding that and working with them to treat that, as opposed to punishing it, is the direction that the nation is going in. But especially New Hampshire recognizing that, we’ve implemented more trauma-informed practices.”

Sanchez sees this, too, as her independent office spends time in the facility getting to know the residents. A report from her office in October 2022 paints a similar picture.

Out of the 12 residents in the fall, nine had extensive case histories of reported abuse and neglect. Three had previous child protection cases as well.

“Those are kids with extreme trauma,” Sanchez said. “That also tells us why this treatment approach is so necessary because these are kids who aren’t necessarily choosing to make these decisions. They don’t know any better. They’re in survival mode. They’re trying to find basic needs.”

A typical stay at the Sununu Center under current practices is three to six months. While it’s shorter than past sentences, for a teenager it can not only feel like an eternity, but what comes next is often uncertain.

One program that has helped youths think about success once they’re released is the TREK Program, which assigns a coordinator to each resident to build a support team of people – like counselors, coaches, parents, teachers – and an action plan.

Still, success can be difficult.

“They’re not going back to the best families you can imagine who are going to support them and force them to be in treatment and change,” said Sanchez. “They’re going back to broken homes with incarcerated parents or parents maybe abusing substances. And that’s a really toxic environment.”

An impending closure

A Google search of “Sununu Youth Services Center” yields results of settlement cases, decades of abuse and a narrative that the building will close before the state has a new plan in place.

It all combines to make it even harder to hire employees to work in the space in a state that’s already facing a dire worker shortage.

The center calls for 45 frontline staff in the building 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

At its lowest in the past year, 17 staff were employed full-time. Currently, the center has 22 full-time staff.

That meant that other employees at the Department of Health and Human Services were working overtime to cover shifts. A temp agency was used to also fill in gaps.

These temporary shifts are a Band-Aid to the staffing problem that also hinders the trauma-informed work with children.

Sanchez’s office receives reports of incidents at the center, with explanations of consequences.

In a recent report, one resident was having a hard time and instead of punishment, the staff member knew this youth liked music and was able to settle them down with a break to listen to music on their iPad.

When staff filter through and don’t know the kids or their needs, these resolutions become more rare.

“They don’t have the relationships with their kids. They don’t necessarily want to be there. The kids know that. They can read that immediately when somebody walks into the building doesn’t want to be there,” Sanchez said. “They feel the difference of having consistent staffing versus not.”

But Sanchez recognizes the challenges of hiring consistent staff – especially when the future location of the facility is unknown.

An outside report from a state-hired architectural engineering firm has identified the residential treatment facility at Hampstead Hospital as the best location for the new center.

In other residential facilities, rooms are designed to feel like bedrooms.

The center is more emblematic of a home setting, not a cinder-block mix of high school and jail.

“The security, locked doors, big heavy metal doors. The kids rooms, they look like cells. They don’t look like bedrooms,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez hopes to finalize the location and layout of the facility well-ahead of the March 2024 closing date. If the facility were to close without an alternative, examples from other states show the catastrophic outcomes.

In Vermont, since the state’s juvenile detention facility closed in 2020 with no replacement plan, youths have been held in adult prisons, hotels and even out of state at the Sununu Center.

If the state can finalize and communicate a plan for a new facility, Sanchez hopes that the number of staff invested in the work will only continue to grow.

With more employees, Morin and Rocha have ideas for services they would immediately implement – continuing to build on the clinical approach that’s currently in place.

A new program Morin is overseeing will help clinicians learn how to better talk to youths with trauma-heavy backgrounds. And it’s a model that can be applied to direct care staff, so that everyone in the center is in unison.

“The staff will have the same language and knowledge, and the clinicians will go a little deeper in groups and individual therapy,” Morin said.

And they’re developing a training that focuses on youth mental health, specifically for Sununu Center staff, so that those without clinical backgrounds can better understand how to interact with and speak to kids’ needs.

Often, though, these programs are only as successful as the staff who buy into them.

“We have a great administrative structure right now, where we can have a sense of buy-in and a sense of positivity,” said Rocha. “Staff that have stuck around are the ones that want to create change for the kids.”

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