CONCORD, New Hampshire — Lawmakers working to shut down New Hampshire’s troubled youth detention center heard competing opinions Tuesday on whether to construct a new facility or contract with a private company.
The state currently spends $13 million a year to operate the 144-bed Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, although the typical population is currently about a dozen teens. Debate over its future began years ago, but has come to a boil amid horrific sexual abuse allegations. Last June’s state budget mandated closing the center by March 2023.
The Senate passed a bill last month, however, that would extend the deadline, giving the state until June 30, 2024, to build a new facility. Now debate has moved to the state House.
At a public hearing Tuesday before a House committee, supporters said this timeline was more realistic given demands on the construction industry. They emphasized that a state-run facility would allow the Office of the Child Advocate, an independent oversight agency, to maintain real-time access to children’s records and to respond to problems immediately if necessary.
“Our impression is that a state-owned facility will provide the best return on investment and the most flexible use of that investment,” said Cassandra Sanchez, who took over as director of the 4-year-old watchdog agency earlier this week.
The Senate bill has the support of the Juvenile Rights Policy Group, a coalition of nonprofit groups that advocate for vulnerable youth, and the Department of Health and Human Services. But opponents argued that contracting with an existing private facility could save money because the state would be paying per child, per day instead of maintaining its own, fixed-cost facility. And they said private companies with expertise in treating such children could do a better job than the state, given its poor track record of keeping children safe.
The youth center, named for former Gov. John H. Sununu, has been the target of a criminal investigation since 2019, and 11 former workers were arrested in April. Lawmakers also are considering a $100 million fund to settle claims brought by nearly 450 former residents who have sued the state with allegations involving more than 150 staffers from 1963 to 2018.
“Do we expect another couple hundred million dollars in lawsuits five, 10, 20 years from now?” said former Rep. Neal Kurk, who opposed the Senate-passed bill and said it would create a “mini-Sununu Center.”
“It’s a bad approach,” he said. “The idea that we would pass the Senate bill suggests we have learned nothing from history and we want history to repeat itself.”
Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, agreed, saying the Senate-passed bill focused too much on the building and not enough on appropriate treatment of children.
“To me this feels like we’re taking another step backward,” she said. “It’s incarceration of these children and not looking at what we could be doing for them in their own communities.”
Story by Holly Ramer.