Experts say NH poised to become a model for juvenile justice reform

Moira O’Neill, director of the Office of Child Advocate, left, listens as Jane Tewksbury from Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice talks about reforming the state’s juvenile justice system at a recent meeting in Concord.

As New Hampshire looks to reform its juvenile justice system, Moira O’Neill says she wants to hear from the real experts: kids who have been in that system.

O’Neill, director of the state Office of the Child Advocate, plans a listening tour this summer to meet with kids who live in group homes. She also wants to enlist their participation in a youth advocacy group to help guide policymakers.

“We want to hear from the kids,” O’Neill said. “Getting their stories is key.”

“You really have to engage people regardless of their age when you’re trying to help them. They have to be a big part of it,” she said.

O’Neill recently brought together a roomful of stakeholders to talk about new efforts to bring more community-based, family-centered services into the system to replace out-of-home placements. And some of the most powerful voices in the room belonged to teenagers who know how it feels when the system fails them.

Allie Reyes, 19, who is heading to the University of New Hampshire this fall, said she was in and out of placements for four years, including time spent in the former Youth Development Center in Manchester. She told O’Neill that some of the employees back then would “bet” on the prospects for youngsters leaving detention: “You’re going to be back in two weeks.”

There were gasps from adults in the room, and murmurs of sympathy. “How do we hold workers accountable for what they say?” Reyes asked. “It is hard to work on yourself when you’re constantly being devalued.”

O’Neill thanked her for speaking up. “It’s a testament to your resilience that you’d be so forgiving and be here to help us figure this out,” she told her.

Six young women from the Davenport School, a residential program in Jefferson, made the two-hour trip south to hear what the adults had to say. When it was time for audience questions, they shared their frustrations and begged policymakers to find ways to keep kids out of the system to begin with. Some said it wasn’t their fault they ended up in placements, coming from homes with abuse or substance use issues.

One student talked about being in a foster home for more than three years, going to school “with bruises all over me,” and winding up in the YDC, now the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester. “I’m very sorry for the experience you’ve had,” O’Neill told her.

Another teen said she had a positive experience in foster care, but urged state leaders to do more to improve pay and benefits for those who care for vulnerable children. “I’m here to advocate for the staff that work at those placements,” she said. “They’re raising the future of New Hampshire.”

In response to their comments, O’Neill told the students, “I want to make it clear to you that people in this room and beyond really care about all of you. You are important to the state of New Hampshire, and we’re going to figure this out.”

O’Neill also told the teens about the youth advocacy group her office wants to create. She offered to visit their school to meet with them, or use technology to hold regular virtual meetings. “We have a lot to learn from you guys,” she said.

At the Concord meeting, Patrick McCarthy and Jane Tewksbury from Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice shared their insights about how the state might restructure services for its youngest and most vulnerable citizens. The two, both former juvenile corrections commissioners, have been talking with folks who are involved in child welfare and justice programs here about the challenges and opportunities facing the state.

New Hampshire is well-positioned to become a national model for restructuring its juvenile justice system, the two told the roomful of advocates, lawmakers, providers and case managers. But that will mean bringing all voices — including those of youngsters — into the conversation.

New Hampshire always ranks at or near the top in the annual Kids Count report on child well-being from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Tewksbury noted. And she said, “You are poised to be a national model of systems change.”

New Hampshire previously had a national reputation for its top-quality child welfare system and home-based prevention services, McCarthy said. “And then the recession hit,” he said.

Budget cuts weakened or pared back critical services, and froze rates that providers are paid, he said. “Lots of folks I talked to suggested that some for the challenges you’re taking up now can be traced back to the reduction in support for those services,” he said. “I think that’s an important lesson to remember, because these things are cyclical.”

New Hampshire has a relatively high rate of out-of-home placements, currently about 400 kids, McCarthy said, which “can be traced back to the deterioration of your alternatives to that system.” While most states have 11 to 12 percent of their youth caseloads in group settings, in New Hampshire, it’s more like 20 to 30 percent, he said.

And that’s a lot more expensive than providing services in homes and local communities, he said. He has worked with other states, McCarthy said, that were able to cut the number of residential placements by 20 to 40 percent in just a few years, saving money that can be used instead for community-based, intensive services.

One “sticking point” here, he said, is the future of the Sununu Youth Services Center, the former YDC in Manchester. Built with a capacity for 144 beds, it now has a population of about 20 youngsters, some held for detention and others for incarceration. And with an annual budget of $10.8 million, McCarthy said, that amounts to a staggering annual cost of $540,000 per youngster.

With such a small caseload, New Hampshire could take the opportunity to target intensive, individualized services for those youngsters instead, McCarthy said.

Tewksbury agreed having such a small number of youngsters at the Sununu center is an advantage. “It is a small group, and it makes it easier to get your arms around them, both figuratively and literally,” she said.

It also affords an opportunity to work backward, to see “what parts of the system might have made a difference in keeping that child on track,” she said, such as access to mental health or substance abuse services.

With the passage of Senate Bill 14, which Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law on June 3, the state plans to expand behavioral health services for children, including mobile response and stabilization care for children in crisis. The bill also requires the state to establish a care management system for youngsters with behavioral health challenges; set up a family support clearinghouse; and require assessments and screenings for kids in court-ordered placements.

The goal, O’Neill said, is to reduce reliance on institutions and shift those resources to a community-based system of care for all children.

Karen Cusano, assistant executive director of NFI North, which runs Davenport School, urged officials to find a way to support such programs into the future. In a state with a two-year budget cycle, she said, “We need to solidify this for the long term so the next time the Legislature changes, we’re not reversing back to what it was before.”

And McCarthy urged officials here not to squander any dollars saved by reducing the population at the Sununu center. “Don’t let them go into roads,” he said. “The kids need that money. They need it for earlier interventions.”

At the end of the two-hour meeting, one Davenport student asked a poignant question: “How can we trust you guys when we’ve been failed so many times by the system?”

O’Neill’s reply: “Come and sit with us at the table.”

Her job as child advocate is to look out for all the kids of New Hampshire, she told the teens. “But we would be more effective if we had your eyes as well.”