The Sununu Youth Services Center — the expansive detention facility that is about 10% full — would close in the summer of 2022 if a key House subcommittee gets its way.
Language to close the center, located in the North End of Manchester, has cleared a subcommittee of the House Finance Committee in a unanimous bipartisan vote, said the chairman, Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn.
Edwards said Thursday the state would save $13 million by defunding the Sununu Center. For 10 years the Legislature has been encouraging the state Department of Health and Human Services to devise a plan to close the center, and nothing has happened, he said.
“The Legislature is essentially saying enough is enough,” he said Thursday.
On Thursday, lawyers sparred over whether a judge should dismiss a lawsuit that has brought claims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse over a 50-year period at the center.
“The state is now trying to silence the victims of its own systemic, governmental child abuse,” said Bedford lawyer Cyrus Rilee, who now represents 220 former residents of the Sununu Center and its predecessor, YDC.
They have waited 14 months while the state pursued a criminal investigation. With no indictments and no arrests, it’s time for the case to move forward, he said.
An assistant New Hampshire attorney general, Jennifer Ramsey, said the state does not want the entire case thrown out, only the portion that holds responsible the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the center.
The suit can proceed against the individual defendants, who are former Sununu Center/YDC employees, Ramsey said.
She also objected to certification for class-action status. And she said the lead defendant, David Meehan, could not sue because of a three-year statute of limitation.
“DHHS is not saying that it believes Mr. Meehan is lying or is even misguided,” Ramsey said. But she said his claims fall outside a three-year window that one has to bring suit once they realize who the responsible parties are.
Merrimack County Superior Court Judge John Kissinger did not rule from the bench on the state’s motion to dismiss.
Previous news articles have pegged the capacity of the three-wing Sununu Center at 140 residents. Nowadays, the census ranges from 10 to 16, Edwards said.
Edwards said the recommendation calls for closing the Sununu Center in the second year of the upcoming state budget. The second year starts July 2022. The language would be attached to HB2, the budget trailer bill.
The recommendation came from a working group that included the current chairman of the House Finance Committee, Rep. Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, and former chairman, Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord.
The four Republicans and three Democrats of House Finance Committee Division III supported the measure.
“There was almost nothing we agreed on more strongly,” Edwards said. A message sent to DHHS seeking comment was not immediately returned.
Edwards said New Hampshire Child Advocate Moira O’Neill and Waypoint lobbyist John DeJoie are working on details of what placements are available for youth still at the Sununu Center.
“We’re not at the point,” he said, “of saying ‘here’s exactly what we should do.’”