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Another View -- Lou Catano and John Clayton: A bad new law will not help NH children

By LOU CATANO and JOHN CLAYTON
November 23. 2017 8:54PM




THE NEW HAMPSHIRE Legislature passed House Bill 517.

That law, which takes effect on Jan. 1, contains a number of sections that will affect children in placement. It is important for the residents of New Hampshire to understand the impact this new law will have on our state.

This law is not only dreadful for our children in placement at The Webster House or in similar group homes throughout the state, but it will also have a negative impact on our community here in Manchester.

The good news is that the Legislature appropriated sufficient funds in the state budget for all group homes in the state to receive a 5 percent rate increase.

This is welcome news as there has not been a rate increase in nine years. Despite this rate increase, however, many of the group homes in our state do not come close to covering their operating costs, and fundraising in the community is necessary for survival.

The new law also changes who can be placed at the Sununu Youth Services Center, the facility for New Hampshire’s children adjudicated as delinquent. The changes may help to balance the NH budget, but they certainly will not help our troubled youth.

The new law is detrimental not only to the troubled youth who are currently in the Sununu Center, but to the children in other placements and the communities we live in.

The Sununu Center is specifically charged with protecting and rehabilitating violent youth.

The residents of the Sununu Center have been convicted of conduct — which, if committed by an adult — would constitute a crime such as drug possession, second-degree assault, simple assault, domestic violence, sexual assault, arson or robbery.

The Sununu Center is a secure facility, in order to protect the child as well as the community. It costs the state of New Hampshire $499 per day per resident to run this state-of-the-art facility that was built in 2006.

Although the Sununu Center can hold up to 144 residents, just 50 to 60 youth are currently living there. The new legislation changes the definition of who can be admitted to the Sununu Center.

Under the new criteria, the youth must have been convicted of four or more prior offenses.

Until the youth is convicted of a fourth offense, they can only be placed in a non-secure community group home or treatment center. The law goes on to establish a budget that allocates approximately $8.75 million during an 18-month period of time to fund 35 beds for the youth that will no longer be eligible for commitment or detention at the Sununu Center. This amount of funding translates to approximately $371 per day/per resident.

While reducing the population of the Sununu Center may save the state money, it doesn’t take into account the downshifting of costs to the community, schools, police, emergency rooms or victims.

Since 2011, 22 group homes have closed in the state of New Hampshire, and there is a current shortage of beds, yet the state is hopeful that the 35 additional beds will be spread among the 21 remaining group homes in the state. The state also does not want the current group homes to reduce the beds they currently have.

Having been involved in the system for many years, we believe that introducing ‘non-serious violent youth’ into the mix with the current group home population puts the current residents and the staff of these facilities at risk.

When you introduce a youth who has had three or fewer criminal convictions (and how many counts plead down?) to a group home, it places all the children and the staff in the home at risk. These youth are more prone to violence and running away, so staff must turn their attention to that individual and the other children suffer.

There is a place in New Hampshire for the Sununu Center, for group homes and for treatment centers. Each youth needs to be evaluated and it should be a thoughtful decision as to where they should be placed based on them individually. The decision should not be made based on a ‘four convictions’ or a ‘Serious Violent Crime’ model.

Serious obstinate, challenging, disruptive behaviors are just as unhealthy and can be just as risky as violent behavior.

It is an unfortunate reality that there is a population of youth in the state that needs the secure treatment offered at the Sununu Youth Services Center. Most of these youth have already been in unsecure community programs.

The notion of continuing to try to provide services to children with numerous failed attempts in the community is not prudent or wise.

It will be discovered that without the threat of commitment, the teens will realize quickly that the system is all bark and no bite. This is not the message they need to learn and should never be the one we want to send.

The new law is detrimental to our youth, our communities and our state. New Hampshire is legislating from the bottom up.

Our children are our future, and they are worth the investment.

We have to believe that our legislators may have been uninformed when they passed this legislation, and we hope that they reconsider this legislation before harm is done to our children, our community and our future.

Lou Catano is executive director of The Webster House in Manchester. John Clayton is the board chairman.


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