Child advocate seeks cooperation at youth detention center
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The director of the Office of the Child Advocate is calling for cooperation instead of finger-pointing after state officials issued a lengthy response to abuse allegations at New Hampshire’s youth detention center.
The Disability Rights Center issued a report last week saying staff at the Sununu Youth Services Center routinely violated state law in using dangerous face-down restraint methods, including in the case of a 14-year-old boy with emotional and behavioral disabilities who ended up with a broken shoulder blade in December. Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers responded Tuesday, calling the report unfounded and irresponsible and accusing the center of cherry-picking information about the incident.
Moira O’Neill, director of the child advocate office, said the varying perspectives of those involved — including the Disability Rights Center, health officials and law enforcement — all are important, but they should be working together instead of blaming each other.
“There may be flaws with the DRC report, but the defensive tone of the DHHS response distracts from the importance of the work of both agencies: the car and protection of children,” she said in a statement late Tuesday night.
According to the Disabilities Rights Center, the boy was thrown to the ground by a staffer who put his knee on the teen’s back and pushed his face against the floor after he repeatedly came out of his room in the center’s crisis unit. Two staffers later grabbed the boy’s arms and pushed him to the floor face down, the report said. In their response, state officials said a state police investigation concluded the restraints were legal and necessary for the teen’s safety and that of others. They also described the boy’s history of physical aggression and his escalating behavior leading up to the incident, including kicking and punching doors and threatening staff. The boy was injured because he and the staffers unintentionally fell to the floor during the restraint and one staffer “landed awkwardly” on him, they said.
The Manchester facility is named for Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s father, former Gov. John H. Sununu, and serves children ages 13 to 17 who are ordered to a secure institutional setting by the juvenile justice system. According to the state officials, the 14-year-old boy was placed there after assaulting his grandmother. The Disability Rights Center said he had been diagnosed with severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and had been at the center for two weeks while awaiting an opening at a community-based residential program.
In her initial response to the report, O’Neill said the continued use of a detention center for the placement of children in need of mental health care is unacceptable. On Tuesday, she said the lack of appropriate mental health services for children is likely the primary driver of juvenile justice problems in general. Her office will review the detention center’s services and the state’s efforts to develop alternative options for children who need such care, she said.
“We have no reason to believe that anyone employed by the SYSC goes to work with the intent to harm children, and we certainly acknowledge the difficulty of caring for children with profound mental health conditions that can manifest in aggressive behaviors,” O’Neill said. “What is important now is what to do going forward.”