DCYF, advocates oppose sweeping changes for new juvenile treatment center

Mar. 15—CONCORD — A proposal to set staffing benchmarks and change the criminal code for juvenile offenders would reverse the progress New Hampshire has made in reducing the number of youths sent to the Sununu Youth Services Center, state officials and child advocates say.

The current and past chairmen of the House Finance Committee are co-authors of a proposal (HB 49 amendment) to narrow the number of criminal offenses for which a juvenile could be sent to the "trauma-informed" treatment center, which will replace the Sununu Center in coming years.

Advocates say, however, the unintended consequences of the proposal would harm a collaborative approach used to divert most youths into community treatment while forcing police to overcharge so as to keep a small number of dangerous juveniles off the street.

Under the bipartisan proposal, juveniles could not be detained or committed for a Class A Misdemeanor crime, such as assault or domestic violence, unless it was the third such offense within 12 months.

The proposal also calls for the new center to meet national standards for staffing, with an operating budget similar in size per capita to the state's counterparts in New England.

"I think we should have the smallest system possible. To the greatest extent possible, we want them cared for in their own communities," said Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, a former House Finance chairman.

Division of Children Youth and Families Director Joe Ribsam said New Hampshire already has the lowest number of juveniles per capita incarcerated in the country.

As a result, however, the dozen or so youths remaining at the center are more "intense" than in peer states.

Ribsam said they require more staffing and a higher expense per resident than those states with much larger "juvenile jails."

"We are running a much different facility than anybody else. States with lowest cost per child also lock up the most kids," Ribsam said. "I can't be part of a system where that is the goal."

Ribsam noted the national average for staffing at a juvenile incarceration facility is one employee for every eight residents.

More police needed

Applied to the youth services center, this would mean having only two staffers, which would lead to a "24-hour" need for outside law enforcement to keep the peace, he said.

Renee Touhey-Childress, executive director of the Dover Children's Home, said she has a three-to-one resident to staff ratiio in her local program.

"This (national average staffing here) is completely inappropriate, unsafe and will absolutely never meet the needs of youth," she said of the proposal.

For the past two years, an expanding system of care in the community and the use of a detention assessment tool in the courts have cut down on the number of youths sent to the center, Ribsam said.

The agency has proposed youths in three-quarters of cases not go through juvenile court and on to the SYSC, but instead receive community treatment.

Police have agreed with those DCYF recommendations 94% of the time, Ribsam said.

These criminal code changes, however, would ignore the "one or two" cases a year of a single overt act, such as a child's assault on a parent, he said.

In those incidents, a juvenile needs to be briefly detained at the center because there's no other safe place to put them, Ribsam said.

Fear of overcharging

The change may force some police and prosecutors to charge a juvenile with a more serious crime to get him off the street and into an incarcerated setting, he said.

"If we change the dynamics here, I very much worry law enforcement will be reluctant to defer charging against kids," Ribsam said.

Representatives of the Juvenile Justice Reform Commission, New Hampshire Legal Assistance, Waypoint and the National Alliance for Mental Illness in New Hampshire urged budget writers to reject the changes.

Instead, they support the rival proposal of Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, which raises the estimate to build this new center to $21.6 million, up from $15 million.

Former House Finance Chairman Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican, urged the panel to support the amendment's "comprehensive" approach.

Legislators can adjust the specifics over the several years it will take to finish building the new treatment center, he said.

"Nobody is going to get it right the first, second or third time. We can always make things better," Kurk said. "I would urge you take a significant step now rather than try and do it piecemeal."