CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The New Hampshire House rejected a measure aimed at sending fewer children to the state’s troubled youth detention center Thursday after child advocates argued it would have had the opposite effect.
The disagreement arose as lawmakers inch closer to replacing the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, a 144-bed facility that costs the state $13 million per year while typically housing fewer than a dozen teens daily. Debate about closing the center began years ago, but came to a boil amid horrific sexual abuse allegations stretching back decades.
After failing to meet their own March 2023 deadline to shut it down, lawmakers recently allocated money to select a site for a new, much smaller facility but the stopgap measure left many details unresolved.
Hoping to move forward, the state House passed a bill Thursday that would fund a 12-bed facility, with room for up to 18, and allocating roughly $22 million for design and construction, with as much money as possible coming from federal COVID-19 relief aid. The bill, which now goes to the state Senate, also begins outlining clinical and safety guidelines for the new facility, including a focus on therapeutic and trauma-informed care of children.
While there is broad agreement on such an approach, some lawmakers said the bill falls short. Rep. Marjorie Smith, a Democrat from Durham, said it might replicate the same mismanagement and harm to juveniles in its care.
“There’s nothing that says we won’t be doing the same things we’ve been doing for years and failing — the same things that caused more than 1,000 children to allege physical and sexual abuse,” she said.
Smith supported a failed amendment to the bill that would have required future leaders of the center to be experts in helping children with special needs, not corrections officers. It also would have prevented children from being sent to the facility if they had fewer than three prior convictions for low-level crimes. Supporters said that would prevent unnecessary incarceration of youth, but opponents said it would have unintended consequences.
Under current law, officials sometimes briefly detain children who commit low-level crimes to remove them from dangerous homes while they arrange a place for them to stay, such as a foster home. Child advocates opposed the amendment to require three prior convictions, arguing that it would incentivize law enforcement to bring more charges so that they could obtain a brief detention.
“If you make it harder to put somebody in this new trauma-informed, therapeutic center, what will happen is you’re encouraging law enforcement and judges to escalate charges,” said Republican Rep. Jess Edwards, of Auburn, sponsor of the funding measure, at a news conference Wednesday.
A coalition of state officials who work with children agreed with Edwards.
“The experts agree that individualized, trauma-informed care administered within a treatment facility will not only support youth more effectively but will reduce recidivism rates and future costs,” said Cassandra Sanchez, the state’s Child Advocate.
Lawmakers haven’t decided where to build the new facility but have mentioned Manchester, Concord or Hampstead as possibilities. In 2021, the state purchased Hampstead Hospital with the goal of transforming it into a residential and psychiatric treatment hospital for children and young adults.