Emergency legislation moving forward

CONCORD – With the closing of the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, formerly known as YDC, required in just five weeks, lawmakers are now scrambling to pass a new bill to create a new facility and extend the closure date.

Many details remain, including where a new center will be cited, but an emergency exists for Gov. Chris Sununu to sign the legislation before March 1 to move the closure date out.

As the law now requires, the youths to be moved out and the doors closed on that date.

Currently, there is nowhere for the dozen or more children to go.

Doing so would likely require youths to be moved out of state, disrupting their therapy and causing an added state expense, legislators were told Tuesday at the House Children and Family Law Committee.

House Bill 120 as amended will still allow the governor – with the approval of the finance committee of the general court – to delay the June 30, 2024 project completion date for a new facility, for construction or unforeseen circumstances, but would provide any such delay be no more than two years.

“We really need you…the kids need you. We’ve got to get this passed so we don’t have a forced closure on March 1,” said state Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, who offered an extensive amendment.

The plan is to make it identical to what is passed in the Senate so the governor has it on his desk in a few weeks.

A similar bill just passed last week 22-2 in the state Senate.

“What we are building is more like a treatment center than a prison,” said Edwards.

He said the 144-bed facility holds about a dozen youths now and the emphasis has evolved to treat rather than incarcerate, so they can return to society. He estimated that the state spends $13 million a year on the current facility and believes that when built a new center for about 18 kids will be at a third of the cost.

The new facility will drop the name “Sununu” after the former governor, John Sununu, Gov. Chris Sununu’s father, and return to the former name Youth Development Center.

Edwards was congratulated by the chair of the House Children and Family Law Committee for “Henry Kissinger-like shuttle diplomacy” with the state senate on this.

Currently, architects are looking for possible locations for a new center throughout the state with Hampstead becoming a top contender, as the state has just purchased the Hampstead Hospital for the behavioral needs of children on a 100-plus acre property.

Edwards, the prime sponsor, said the bill provides a commission to be formed to implement a payment in lieu of taxes arrangement to prevent shifting costs to local communities. He said the plan is to make sure the facility is not operated by a for-profit, private entity.

Karen Rosenberg, policy director for the Disability Rights Center, said she wants to be sure that the bill assures that the new facility is state-owned and operated.

“The buck needs to stop with the state,” she said.

The state is facing a number of legal battles related to the past mistreatment of children at the facility, including child rape by state employees.

Cassandra Sanchez, the state child advocate, spoke in favor of the bill.

She said she spends a lot of time at the center and currently the children are receiving one-on-one, family therapy, and group therapy. Because of staffing issues of late, group therapy was not available until recently and now they have more staff.

She supports the shift of a detention center to a treatment center with one concern about the bill related to the utilization of virtual treatment and shared services.

It says if the center is to be co-located with another facility like Hampstead Hospital.

“It should be considered an add-on but not a replacement to in-person services,” she said, particularly in the area of therapy.

Joe Ripsam, who is the director of DCYF, said the typical stay is about six months for a child and there are about 18 there now.

The plan is to have federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars pay for the new facility, about $15 million, and that there may be a few million dollars a year saved over the next few decades, Ripsam said.

“I think there are a lot of unknowns,” he said, that will impact the cost of the facility. But labor and construction costs have gone up in the 18 months since the state estimate was made.

He said on the question of what is right for kids, there is no question that the state needs a new more therapeutic facility.