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As youth offender population plummets, Sununu Center to host private 36-bed drug treatment center

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 25. 2018 9:08AM
The Legislature has empaneled a study committee to look at Manchester's John H. Sununu Youth Services Center and consider its future. (UNION LEADER FILE)

The Sununu Youth Services Center could begin hosting a privately operated, 36-bed drug treatment center for youth by November, a key state lawmaker said on Monday.

Construction retrofits of $1.2 million have already taken place at the youth detention facility. Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers is in negotiations with a private organization to operate a facility there, said state Rep. Frank Byron, chairman of a study committee considering the future of the Sununu Center.

Byron said Meyers should have a contract for the Governor and Executive Council in an upcoming meeting, and portions of the treatment facility could be in place by November.

“The population of the Sununu Center continues to drop,” said Byron, who noted that recent changes in state law further reduced the number of children who could be committed to the center.

Twenty-eight minors were detained at the Sununu Center last week; the center is designed to hold 144. After a layoff this summer of 30 employees, a staff of 110 takes care of the residents. The staff includes psychiatric workers, nurses, teachers, security, cooks and others.

The construction work involved creating a separate entrance and removing some security elements of one of the four 36-bed pods included in the Sununu Center. To be eligible for Medicaid payments, the drug treatment center could not be a secure facility, Byron said.

Meanwhile, the state’s child advocate questioned the need for a 36-bed inpatient facility.

“Thirty-six beds is way too big. We probably don’t have 36 children who would be appropriate for that,” said Moira O’Neill, New Hampshire child advocate. She said an outpatient treatment program would be more effective, and a drug treatment program would carry the same stigma as the Sununu Center.

“They all know what that place is. They all know what it means to be there,” O’Neill said.

The Sununu Center and the 156 acres of land that it occupies have long been a flash-point for budget writers, child advocates and neighbors in the North End of Manchester. In 2017, former mayor Ted Gatsas said he favored turning a portion of the Sununu Center into an inpatient drug treatment center.

This year, the Legislature empaneled a study committee to look at the center and consider its future. The study committee could recommend closing it entirely and farming out the residents and their treatment to smaller facilities, Byron said.

“It may make sense that the state wants to keep them (at the Sununu Center). It also makes sense that we do something somewhere else,” he said. The state could decide to sell much of the land and the unused buildings that sit on them, he said.

O’Neill said some states, such as Connecticut, have closed their centralized detention centers. She said Missouri has located such centers on college campuses to give residents a sense of community.

She praised some aspects of the Sununu Center. It has a staff psychiatrist and nurses who can oversee residents taking psychotropic drugs. The 21 smaller residential centers located throughout the state lack such expertise, she said.

But if the Sununu Center is to stay open, its staff needs to be better trained on the tedious work of behavioral modification, O’Neill said.

“I think there are people in that building who are trying really hard, but I don’t think they have the clinical expertise,” O’Neill said. She also said no science has ever supported the use of secure detention facilities to address the underlying issues of abuse, neglect and trauma that the residents have suffered.

“The place is locked. It’s not the milieu you want to treat someone with a behavioral health problem,” she said.

Byron said his committee has held two meetings. He said the next meeting is Oct. 3, when he hopes to have the Department of Health and Human Services spell out how the three pods are now being used.

He said there needs to be a meeting that includes lawmakers, child advocates, neighbors and other interested parties.

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