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Report alleges a pattern of abuse at Sununu Youth Services Center

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 09. 2018 9:14AM

MANCHESTER — Staff at the Sununu Youth Services Center broke the shoulder of a 14-year-old boy diagnosed with a mental illness while improperly restraining him in 2016, then impeded an investigation into the injury, according to a new report from the Disability Rights Center of New Hampshire.

The watchdog agency found that the incident followed a decade-long pattern of improper restraint and abuse at the state-run facility, which houses youth 13 to 17 years old, including many with behavioral health issues. Since 2008, Disability Rights Center (DRC) has published multiple reports critical of the youth center’s treatment of its residents.

“The governor has called for further investigation and the attorney general and I are proceeding,” Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers said in a statement.

DRC staff attorney Andrew Milne, one of the lead investigators in the most recent case, said he would recommend that judges not commit children to the facility.

“It’s a place where they may well end up being isolated for long hours or physically restrained by staff who are supposed to be caring for them, but in some cases are hurting them,” he said in a phone interview.

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is preparing an official response to the report.

The Office of the Child Advocate also expressed concern with the events described in the report and promised to work with DHHS to ensure the facility is safe.

“First, and foremost, children with mental illness need mental health care,” Office of the Child Advocate Director Moira O’Neill said in a statement, adding that it is “unacceptable” that children in need of care are being placed in a detention facility.

Sununu Youth Services Center was designed to house juveniles involved with the criminal justice system, but in recent years it has also been the destination for youth with mental illnesses who have nowhere else to go, Milne said.

The most recent investigation began after DRC received a complaint about the abuse of a patient — referred to in the report as Zach — who was being housed at the center temporarily because there were no available beds in group homes.

Staff moved Zach to a solitary room in a special crisis unit on Dec. 29, 2016 after he disobeyed an order, according to the report. When he attempted to leave that room to talk to a supervisor, staff member Richard Gilibert pushed him back into his room and then “threw Zach to the ground, put his knee on Zach’s back to hold him down, put his hand on Zach’s head, and pressed his face against the ground,”

After Gilibert left the room. Zach kicked and punched the door while Gilibert and another staff member, Shane Arsenault, held it shut.

The two men then opened the door. Gilibert grabbed Zach’s left arm while Arsenault took his right, then they pushed him to the floor, where he landed face down with Gilibert’s full weight on his upper back and his arm held out to the side.

The state’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Jennie Duval, later found that the restraint likely caused the fracture to Zach’s left scapula, DRC wrote.

Zach did not see a doctor until the next day; his parents were not notified until the next morning.

Over the course of the next several days, he complained repeatedly about his injury, and when he attempted to make a sling out of his clothes, staff threatened to take the clothes away, according to the report.

The report can be viewed below:

It wasn’t until five days after the incident that Zach received an X-ray showing the fracture. A court ordered him released from Sununu Youth Services Center and placed in a shelter care facility.

The official youth center report on the incident states that Zach attempted to assault staff members and was lying on his back during the restraint — claims that the DRC report said were proven false by video footage of the take-down.

DRC wrote that the restraint constitutes abuse and violated state law because Zach did not pose an immediate physical threat to himself or others.

Three other instances

The watchdog also cited three instances from 2017 in which youth with mental health diagnoses were physically restrained in possible violation of the law.

In April, a 14-year-old named Chris was restrained and locked in a room for stealing a staff radio.

Security footage from the room shows Chris hitting himself in the face and writing on the walls in his own blood while staff took no action to stop him, according to the report.

That same month, staff restrained a 15-year-old girl named Rachel after she refused to go to her room.

Then in August, staff took down a 13-year-old boy named Nick and held him in a prone restraint because he was attempting to leave a solitary room in the crisis unit.

In all three cases, DRC said it found no evidence that the children presented an immediate risk of serious bodily injury, the standard necessary to justify restraint.

DRC, which has a federal mandate to investigate instances of abuse of people with mental illnesses, claims Sununu Youth Services Center also broke state law by filing false reports and failing to notify DRC of an incident in which restraint caused serious injury.

The watchdog has investigated abuse of children at the youth center on at least two previous occasions, finding a “pervasive pattern of unnecessary and excessive force.”

In recent years DRC met with DHHS’ Meyers regarding the facility.

“When we met with the commissioner, it was predominantly about the use of seclusion,” Milne said, adding “The commissioner was concerned and he had his staff review records and he agreed with us that seclusion was being overused ... Some reforms were instituted in the unit in response, but there were still a lot of issues not only with seclusion, but with restraint.”

In its most recent report, DRC recommended that the state take several actions to address the facility’s problems, including improving staff training, properly documenting and reviewing use of force incidents, and adhering to state laws governing restraint.

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