CONCORD — After reviewing reports documenting more than 20,000 incidents of child restraint and seclusion in residential youth facilities over the last five years, the state’s Office of the Child Advocate said Wednesday a system review is underway regarding such practices.
Child Advocate Moira O’Neill said the review focuses on approximately 400 children placed in private residential facilities and in the Sununu Youth Services Center (SYSC) by the Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).
O’Neill said it’s “hard to know exactly” what the 20,000 incidents “are indicative of,” because the annual reports made to state legislators from which the incidents were culled are in the aggregate.
“Does this represent 20,000 incidents? Does it represent one child, many kids, one staff member, a particular type of restraint or seclusion? The reports don’t give that information,” said O’Neill, who was hired to provide independent oversight of child protective services and sworn in to the new position in January 2018.
According to O’Neill, RSA chapter 126-U restricts use of restraint or seclusion to situations involving substantial and imminent risk of serious harm to the child or others.
“The reported numbers of restraint and seclusion may reflect inconsistencies in reporting and defining the events,” said O’Neill. “Or they may reflect a widespread inability to meet children’s behavioral needs and de-escalate situations leading to restraints and seclusions.”
O’Neill said when a child is behaving a certain way, it’s because they are trying to communicate something they are feeling or experiencing. Restraining or putting them in seclusion hinders their ability to communicate, she said.
“We know there is no scientific evidence of therapeutic benefit to restraint or seclusion,” O’Neill said. “In fact, the interventions are associated with physical and emotional harm to both children and staff. Proper review of these practices is necessary to ensure the health and safety of children under the care of DCYF. Only in comprehensive analysis can insights and helpful recommendations be made.”
The Office of Child Advocate was created in response to child fatalities in 2014 and 2015, with an eye toward improving the effectiveness and transparency of DCYF operations.
According to O’Neill, DCYF is mandated to report incidents to the Office of the Child Advocate under state law. However, O’Neill said, there is no central monitoring system for tracking these incidents.
In the nearly two years since the office was established, O’Neill said, DCYF has yet to provide child-specific incident reports, other than those reported from the Sununu Youth Services Center, those under special investigation due to an injury or abuse/neglect allegation, or those specifically requested by the Office of the Child Advocate.
O’Neill said her office hopes to complete the full system review by Oct. 31, but admits that target date may be “optimistic.”
Attempts to reach a public information officer at the Department of Health and Human Services for comment late Wednesday were unsuccessful.