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After fire, eyes turn to NH youth center


MANCHESTER — Eight days after a fire tore through a historic building on the campus of the state juvenile reform center, investigators continue searching for who set the blaze.

“We’re still in the process of evaluating it all,” Penny Sampson, director of the John H. Sununu Youth Services Center said. “We will listen to what the inspectors have to say and then make a determination of what (the state) will be able to do with it.”

Although the Wilkins Cottage had been out of use for decades when the Sununu Center opened in 2006 and replaced the state’s Youth Development Center, it is on the campus that has been home to the state juvenile facility since it opened as the State Reform School in 1858.

Investigators have said only that the June 8 fire was intentionally set, a fact that troubles the state senator who sponsored legislation calling for stronger oversight at the facility.

“I was concerned. Any time something happens in a building that’s associated with this place, everyone should be concerned,” Sen. Sharon Carson said Sunday.

Carson said her concerns are based on safety — both for the youths who were sent to the Sununu Center and the staff working inside the secure facility. She hopes SB-391 — passed by the House and Senate this year and awaiting Gov. Maggie Hassan’s consideration — addresses both sides.

The bill would restore and restructure the state juvenile justice advisory board, which Carson said hasn’t met for 10 years. Among the changes would be including a non-supervisory employee at the youth center to the board, which would meet six times in its first year, then four times a year after that.

The board would submit an annual written report detailing its activities, findings and recommendations.

“This would be like a second set of eyes to oversee and assist. It’s going to get more people involved. If there are problems, they’re not going to fester. They’re going to be addressed.” Carson said she declined an invitation from Sampson — director of the facility for the last 18 months — to tour the center and speak personally. Carson did meet last month with DHHS Commissioner Nicholas Toumpas and was encouraged by the conversation.

The Londonderry Republican said she was overwhelmed during a meeting last summer by the number of complaints and stories of problems at the facility told to her by people working there.

The meeting was less than three years after William Fenniman’s resignation as director of the state Juvenile Justice Services Division and the Sununu Center in January 2011. A Disabilities Rights Center report filed in fall 2010 found a pattern of excessive force and use of dangerous restraints.

Carson said the concerns brought to her have been more about employment practices and policy changes that staff members said jeopardize safety at the facility.

“There has just been a lot of controversy in this place. I don’t know why,” she said. “This is critical because we’re with at-risk children. This is a difficult issue and I don’t think there’s an easy answer.”

The facility began life in the 19th century as the House of Reformation for Juvenile and Female Offenders Against the Laws. It is located on what was once the farm of Revolutionary War Gen. John Stark; remnants of the Stark homestead have been preserved at the southeast corner of the campus.

The Wilkins Cottage was the first girls-only dormitory built for the facility. It had not been used since the late 1970s.

Sampson said there are other buildings on the property that are not used for the Sununu Center’s operations. Agencies including New Hampshire State Police and firefighters use some of the buildings and property for training.

“We really use it all for the community,” she said of the site.

dalden@unionleader.com

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