Officials consider new closing date for New Hampshire youth center
A New Hampshire lawmaker on Friday proposed extending the March deadline to close the state’s troubled youth detention center over concerns that the current timeline could endanger public safety.
The debate over the future of the Sununu youth services center in Manchester began years ago but has boiled over amid horrific allegations of sexual abuse. Frustrated with spending $13 million a year to operate a 144-bed facility for a dozen teenagers, lawmakers set a mandatory March 1 closing date. But the center’s fate remains uncertain after lawmakers could not agree this year on how to replace it.
Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, said Friday he plans to introduce two bills for the legislative session that begins in January: one to extend the three-month deadline and another that calls for a new installation of 12 to 14 beds, with room for 18 if required. He told Deputy Health Commissioner Lori Weaver he was worried about what would happen on March 1 without such measures.
“The Legislature has let you down,” he said. “We just couldn’t come to an agreement, so we didn’t give you anything in the way of money to plan and design it.”
Weaver said she could not predict the population of the center six months in advance, but based on the current situation, “there would be a definite impact on public safety” if the deadline arrived without further indication. .
“If this were to happen today, I could tell you that there would be a public risk for some of these young people to be placed in situations that would not only be dangerous for them, but potentially for the community as well,” he said. she said Friday at a meeting of the Health and Social Services Oversight Committee.
The youth center, named after former governor John H. Sununu, has been under criminal investigation since 2019 and 11 former workers were arrested last year. The state recently established a $100 million fund to settle claims filed by nearly 450 former residents who sued the state over abuse allegations involving more than 150 staff members from 1963 to 2018.
In recent weeks, police have intervened at the facility on several occasions to help staff deal with the disturbances. Weaver told lawmakers the incidents were not unusual, but a severe understaffing coupled with the “toughest kids” created a “perfect storm” that required outside help. Lawmakers recently approved salary increases for staff, but recruitment remains a challenge given the impending shutdown date, she said.
“I think there are a lot of people who want to come and help and work,” she said, adding that the closing date “overshadows the facility for sure.”