Proposed state budget would force closure of youth center

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

Associated Press
Published: 4/6/2021 3:06:29 PM

The proposed budget headed for a House vote this week would force the closure of New Hampshire’s youth detention center next year, though the head of the agency overseeing it calls the plan unrealistic.

Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, said the House Finance Committee’s recommendation to shut down the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester marked “a moment of high bipartisanship in the committee.”

“It was really kind of the highlight of our getting along and trying to do what’s right for the community,” he said Monday as the committee briefed other House members on their $13.5 billion, two-year budget proposal.

The facility, formerly called the Youth Development Center, has been the target of a broad criminal investigation since July 2019, and more than 200 men and women have joined a lawsuit in the last year alleging they were physically or sexually abused as children by 150 staffers from 1963 to 2018. It can hold up to 144 children, but its population has dropped drastically in recent years thanks to changes to state law, and the average daily census now is under 20.

The state spends $12 million a year to operate it, but the Finance Committee recommends eliminating that money in the second year of the budget.

“This is expensive and not effective, so we need to change what we’re doing,” Edwards said. “We’re just going to have to try to force their hands.”

Joe Ribsam, director of the Division for Children, Youth and Families, said planning for a smaller, secured setting for detained and committed youth makes sense but said the committee’s proposal is unrealistic.

“It provides nearly no funding for a secured setting after June of next year and insufficient time to develop an appropriate and viable alternative. We have worked hard, and have been successful, to reduce the need for youth detention and commitment,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to finding a resolution that will both meet the needs of the relatively few youth for whom a secured placement is necessary and the public’s reasonable expectation of safety.”

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has said his administration has worked hard to increase community-based services for youth as an alternative to incarceration, but that the state needs an appropriate facility for youth who are a danger to themselves and the public.

The House is expected to vote on the proposed budget Wednesday, the first of three session days scheduled this week.

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