CONCORD, NH (AP) — A New Hampshire lawmaker on Friday proposed extending the March deadline to close the state’s troubled juvenile detention center, amid concerns that the current timeline would endanger public safety.
The debate over the future of the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester started years ago but has come to a boil amid horrific allegations of sexual abuse. Frustrated with spending $13 million a year to operate a 144-bed facility for about a dozen teens, lawmakers set a mandated cut-off date of March 1. But the fate of the center remains unclear after lawmakers failed to agree on its replacement this year.
Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, said Friday he plans to table two bills before the legislative session starting in January: one to extend the deadline by three months and another that calls for a new one. facility from 12 to 14 beds, with room for 18 if needed. He told Deputy Health Commissioner Lori Weaver that he is concerned about what will happen on March 1 without such measures.
“The legislature has failed you,” he said. “We just couldn’t come to an agreement, so we didn’t give you anything to go further in terms of money to plan and design it.”
Weaver said she cannot predict the center’s population six months in advance, but based on the current situation “there would be a clear impact on public safety” if the deadline came without further guidance.
“If that happened today, I could tell you that there would be a public risk for some of these young people to be put in situations that would be unsafe not only for them, but potentially for the community,” she said Friday. at a meeting of the Health and Human Services Oversight Committee.
The youth center, named after former governor John H. Sununu, has been the target of a criminal investigation since 2019 and 11 former employees were arrested last year. The state recently established a $100 million fund to settle claims filed by nearly 450 former residents who have sued the state over allegations of abuse involving more than 150 staffers between 1963 and 2018.
Police have been on the scene several times in recent weeks to help staff resolve the nuisance. Weaver told lawmakers the incidents were not uncommon, but severe understaffing coupled with “the toughest kids” made for a “perfect storm” that required outside help. Lawmakers recently approved salary increases for staff, but recruitment remains a challenge given the approaching closing 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 “definitely overshadows the facility.”