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DHHS blasts report critical of Sununu Youth Services Center

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 15. 2018 8:54PM
The Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester. (UNION LEADER FILE)

The Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday vehemently rejected a watchdog’s report accusing the Sununu Youth Services Center of routinely, dangerously and illegally restraining children detained at the facility.

The report, from the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), focused on one 2016 incident in particular in which staff broke the shoulder of a 14-year-old boy while restraining him.

The boy’s parents are suing the state and two of the staff members involved. It is the second time in five years that the Sununu Youth Services Center and staff member Richard Gilbert have been sued for a use of restraint that caused serious injury to a child. The state settled a lawsuit from 2013.

In a 15-page rebuttal to the DRC report, DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald characterized the findings as “unfounded and irresponsible.”

“The bottom line is that we don’t feel there is an abuse of kids going on through the illegal use of restraints at the Sununu Youth Services Center,” Meyer said in an interview Tuesday. “That allegation is really unfounded.”

In December 2016, Gilbert and another staff member placed the 14-year-old, referred to as Zach, in a prone, face-down restraint with Gilbert’s full weight on his back, breaking his scapula in the process.

Zach posed no physical threat to himself or others at the time of the incident, according to the DRC report. But in its response, the state argued that DRC failed to take into account several facts and witness statements. In particular, the rebuttal pointed out that Zach was a large boy who was detained at the facility because he had assaulted his grandmother. Furthermore, the agency wrote, staff members reported that Zach threatened them verbally and was punching and kicking the door to his room, thus endangering himself and others.

DHHS claimed there were many more inaccuracies in the report, including:

• The assertion that prone, face-down restraints, such as the method used on Zach, are dangerous or illegal.

• The characterization that the center “routinely” uses physical restraint. Between November 2016 and November 2017 there were 76 reported uses of restraint at Sununu Youth Services Center and an average of 59 children in the facility at any given time, according to the agency.

• Allegations that the center failed to report Zach’s injury to DRC, as it is legally required to do. Director Brady Serafin notified DRC of the incident nearly a year after it occurred following an internal investigation, according to DHHS.

• Allegations that the center obstructed DRC’s investigation and failed to provide records.

In a statement, DRC Executive Director Stephanie Patrick said she was “not surprised the agency that operates this facility has publicly justified its actions” and called on DHHS to make changes to improve the quality of care at the facility.

The response to the DRC report from DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald can be viewed below:

Since 2008, DRC has issued at least three reports critical of the quality of care at the center.

DRC Policy Director Michael Skibbie said in an interview Tuesday that those investigations and the 2013 lawsuit were further evidence of a pattern of dangerous behavior at Sununu Youth Services Center.

In that lawsuit, the parents of a boy detained at the center claimed that Gilbert threw their son to the ground and, along with two other staff members, beat him severely enough that they fractured bones in his face. The state disputed those claims but eventually settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.

“We’re very concerned that the same staff member who was involved in the incident that we recently investigated was alleged to be involved in the serious injury of a child years before,” Skibbie said. “It raises questions about the quality of care at the center” and DHHS’ response to the incident.

Funding cut proposed

The back-and-forth over the center comes at a time when the facility’s future is uncertain.

Last year, the legislature passed a law restricting the kind of youths who could be placed at Sununu Youth Services Center to only those who had committed serious, violent offenses. The center had previously housed youths who had committed lesser offenses or who could not immediately find placement in community treatment programs.

Those changes have resulted in a reduction in the number of youths held at the facility — down from an average of 64 to 44, at any given time — and prompted some lawmakers to push for a dramatic reduction in the facility’s budget.

The House has proposed cutting funding for the program from $12.2 million in this fiscal year to $7.2 million next year — a reduction that Meyers called “wholly inadequate” and having “no integrity” during a conference committee on Tuesday.

Afterward, he said it would be a good idea for state officials to seriously examine New Hampshire’s juvenile corrections system and the role of Sununu Youth Services Center.

“What you saw today in front of the committee of conference is a basic disagreement among a variety of state officials about what the model should be for New Hampshire and how is that best funded,” Meyers said, adding: “I think everybody’s got to come together and, instead of challenging one another, sit down and really talk through what the future of that facility is and what the best model is for juvenile corrections in the state.”

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