My Turn: Children need support, not incarceration

For the Monitor
Published: 9/26/2021 10:00:05 AM

As students have returned back to school and federal legislators negotiate key budgetary priorities, conversations around how best to meet the needs of children are at the forefront. It has without a doubt been an unprecedented time for New Hampshire’s children, and the pandemic continues to disrupt key resources, impacting their mental health. A group that is too often ignored in these conversations, however, is New Hampshire’s incarcerated children. 

Every child deserves a chance to thrive. It may be surprising, but a punitive approach to delinquency is not effective. In fact, it's harmful. Should children be held accountable? Yes, they should. But instead of placing children behind locked doors and disrupting vital family and community connections, we should be investing in community-based programming that actually engages and guides young people towards positive social behavior.

President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget request included $100 million to provide grants to states to plan closure of ineffective youth prisons and re-invest the cost of running those facilities in much more effective and cost-efficient community-based alternatives to youth incarceration. These funds would be a critical step in the right direction to better serve children, families and communities in New Hampshire. As chair of the U.S. Senate appropriations subcommittee of jurisdiction, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen holds a powerful role in determining whether this funding is allocated to support children across the country and right here in the Granite State.

Study after study tell us that removing children from their homes and communities deeply and negatively affects their development, health, well-being and even intelligence. I will never forget a boy placed at the Sununu Youth Services Center telling me he could feel his brain rotting in the confined space with limited intellectual stimulation. Most surprising, communities are not made safer by locking children up. The very act of removing a child from his or her community is actually a key ingredient in increasing the likelihood of continuing delinquency. Without connection and a sense of belonging, a child has no incentive to respect their own or the community’s safety.

Many incarcerated children’s offenses are actually acts of enormous resilience: running away from abusive caregivers, assaulting an abusive parent. A good percentage of children entangled in juvenile justice services have significant histories with child protection services as well. In a recent point in time survey of 16 children incarcerated at the Sununu Center, 14 were subjects of abuse and neglect referrals to the Division for Children, Youth and Families. Why is our response to children who clearly need help to punish them and send them away? 

The good news is, New Hampshire’s understanding of children and children’s needs is evolving. Our state has committed to building systems of care that embrace children where they live, long before they get into trouble with the law. Though much is still in development, there is a promise of community-based services that wrap around families and strengthen them to care for their children or access appropriate services when needed. As this system of care roles out, there is no longer a need for a sprawling, expensive children’s prison.  To that end, in 2021 the legislature passed HB 2 with a mandate to close the Sununu Center. 

What the legislature did not do, however, was allocate funds to invest in community capacity for keeping children occupied, learning and connected. The next step in the preventive approach to juvenile justice must be investing in community resources to support basic development and social proficiency. The Office of the Child Advocate has surveyed children at the Sununu Center and elsewhere in the juvenile justice system for their expert opinions about helpful resources. What we heard was simple: Children want after-school programs. They want a place to go that is safe where they can do their homework or play a game. Nearly all of them would like a mentor, some adult who would care to spend time with them. 

When asked what would be a better investment than the hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to incarcerate just one child at the Sununu Center, one boy said, “Well, it would be great if you would help us find a job if we are old enough.  And if we are not old enough, it would be great if you could maybe get our parents jobs.” These children are wise beyond their years.

This federal funding would support New Hampshire in the process of shutting down the Sununu Center. It would help state leaders develop the best resources to keep children in their communities. Most importantly, it would contribute to strategies for increased public safety with interventions that have proven to decrease delinquency. 

Investing in local community resources for children is investing in the future of our state. New Hampshire is ready to lead the nation in transformative care and support for children, but to do so we need the resources. While federal dollars cannot solve every problem within our juvenile justice system, it would provide a down payment on a promising future for New Hampshire and help get us closer to a system that puts children first.

(Moira K. O’Neill is the director of the State of New Hampshire Office of the Child Advocate.)

My Turns are opinion-based essays submitted by Monitor readers and members of the community. The views expressed in My Turns are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Concord Monitor and its staff.

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