Op-Ed: Rep. Marjorie Smith: Change Needed in Juvenile Justice

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Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham

By Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham

Fifteen years ago, I was privileged to serve as Chair of the House Finance Committee, and was introduced to the Sununu Youth Service Center.  What I learned has been on my conscience ever since.

If we were to be judged by how we treat our children, –indeed, our children most in need of help, we would be found wanting. 

The juvenile system was created more than 100 years ago as research demonstrated that children are not miniature adults.  And in each succeeding decade, we have learned more about how human brains develop.  Putting young people who have not behaved according to acceptable community standards in prison is guaranteeing that it will be almost impossible for them to eventually function successfully in society.  But that is what we have done, and are still doing in the Sununu Center.

Young people were kept in isolation, violating the most elementary understanding we have of human growth and development.  They were kept in restraints, violating our own state law. When a federal agency confronted them, they replied that they were working on how to comply with state law, not at all concerned that they were in violation.

Just days ago, the individual responsible for the agency confirmed that children at SYSC are strip searched. They are strip searched every time they leave and return to the facility (going to court, medical appointment, or a family visit.  Can you imagine how that traumatizes already vulnerable young people?

Along with a former Republican chair of the House Children and Family Law Committee, a former Republican chair of the House Finance Committee, and several current members of House Finance, I supported an amendment to the bill that was voted on by the full House on March 23..

Those of us who supported this amendment believe fewer children should be committed or detained, and instead should be cared for in their own communities.

This not only affects the budget, but keeps many low level offenders from incarceration. We know that incarceration is a traumatic experience for anyone, but especially for vulnerable children.

Opponents focus on why children should be incarcerated, we focus on how children charged with low level offenses should be treated in the Children’s System of Care, a system focused on community based treatment that we have appropriated tens of millions of dollars to implement. Yet, we continue to over-incarcerate children charged with low level offenses.

While legislative pressure has resulted in a dramatic decline in the number of children currently incarcerated, we have failed miserably in changing the culture.

Research has shown that Trauma Informed care is the preferred type of treatment for children in this system, The amendment that many of us supported took several steps to assure that trauma informed care should be the focus.

It addressed cultural concerns within the facility by prescribing director qualifications. It would have required that the director be not a corrections office, a warden, but a trained professional in dealing with children with very special needs.

Not assuming that we know all the answers,  we asked for additional data to assess the effectiveness of these interventions.

We provided a clear definition of trauma informed care, required SYSC to practice trauma informed care, and that staff be trained in trauma informed care

When we decided to build SYSC about 20 years ago, DHHS told us that SYSC would fix the issues at YDC such as over-crowding and allegations of abuse. 20 years later, SYSC has the same problems as YDC and now Director Ribsam tells us “I know better. This new facility will fix the issues at YDC”. Does he really think that a new building is the answer?  I never thought I would have occasion to quote Sarah Palin, but a new facility with the same culture, the same staff, the same attitudes about children is like putting lipstick on a pig.

The good news is that the NH House voted for the amendment.  The bad news,is that the NH House then voted for a subsequent amendment that superseded the first and eliminated all the staff requirements and accountability standards.

There is nothing left in the bill that will now go to the senate that requires the new facility will be anything other than a “mini SYSC”.   The bill, as it passed the house, would keep doing the same thing we are doing today at SYSC; the same things that caused thousands of children to allege physical and sexual abuse at SYSC/YDC. The state has been made liable for potentially hundreds of millions of dollars, as if money can heal wounded bodies and minds. Add to that the fact that nearly 2/3 of children released from SYSC, return to SYSC indicating the inadequacy of the treatment provided. 

As I write this, no decision has been made about where the new facility will be built.  I am curious about what will eventually happen to the very large, desirable property in north Manchester that the state will abandon.  The federal government paid for some of the Sununu Center’s construction costs, and there is language in the agreement requiring us to repay the federal government if the property is no longer to be used for the agreed upon purpose.

 If you think the 1000’s of children alleging abuse indicates that we need to take a different approach to the treatment of juveniles, I hope you will do your own research on the matter, and talk with your senators.

Rep. Marjorie Smith

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