February 5, 2009
Richard Cohen, Esq.
Rebecca Whitley, Esq.
Two youth counselors at the Sununu Youth Services Center physically abused and injured a 14-year old male youth with mental illness housed at the facility, according to an investigation conducted by the Disabilities Rights Center (DRC). According to the report, the employees employed a take-down restraint, dragged the youth face-down across the floor by his feet; and in the process, caused him to sustain injuries to his face, head, chest and back; and then held him in a prone restraint for an indefinite amount of time. This was not the first time that the adolescent had been restrained and injured by staff. About a year earlier, he sustained a fractured elbow as a result of staff physically restraining him.
The Disabilities Rights Center conducted an investigation of the incident pursuant to its federal authority to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect in state facilities. DRC issued its findings in a 42 page report on January 16, 2009 requesting at least an initial response to its recommendations by February 6, 2009. An attorney for the Department of Health and Human Services said a response will not be provided until March 13, 2009. View a copy of the report.
The Sununu Center (formerly YDC), located in Manchester, is NH’s primary architecturally secure treatment and detention facility for juveniles. According to DJJS’s medical director, 68 – 80% of the children in the juvenile justice system have a mental illness.
DRC found the staff’s action not only dangerous and excessive, but also unnecessary. The behaviors of the youth that immediately precipitated the use of force were not the type of behaviors that warrant the use of such tactics. According to widely accepted professional standards, the use of force is only to be used in emergency situations and when there are no other less restrictive or drastic measures to address the situation.
According to Rebecca Whitley the DRC attorney who conducted the investigation, “as stated in the report, the use of face-down restraint can put youth at real danger. This type of restraint, and particularly when carried out in the manner it was here, places individuals at risk of death. Exposés on the use of this practice have led a number of agencies and states to ban face down restraint.”
The investigation found equally as disturbing that the same employees involved in the use-of-force actually contributed to and escalated the situation, causing the youth to further act out.
The report also documented serious lapses and shortcomings in the reporting, review, investigation of this incident as well as the corrective processes. Among the findings were that no Sununu Center staff reported the incident to DCYF or the Attorney General’s office in accordance with state law; no “de-briefing” of the matter occurred as required by policy so as learn from it and avoid the incident in the future; the internal investigation was flawed and incomplete; and the employees involved were not disciplined.
As Richard Cohen, DRC’s executive director stated: “This type of employee behavior would not be tolerated against adults, with or without mental illness, in our adult prison system. This is a young adolescent coping with mental illness. What happened here represents a complete departure from societal, legal and professional standards and very purpose of the state’s juvenile facility, which according to state law is to “provide a wholesome physical and emotional setting for each child detained at or committed to the center”; and “provide protection, care, counseling, supervision, and rehabilitative services as required by the individual child.” Cohen previously had served as a member of the Eric L. Oversight Panel overseeing DCYF’s investigation and placement system and was the Director of Investigations for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation.
Cohen added that the “lack of standard and effective internal and external checks and oversight means there is little opportunity for self or externally imposed corrective and preventative action”, adding, “we have made a number of recommendations to address the issues we uncovered and hope that the Sununu Center, the Division of Juvenile Justice, and the Health and Human Services Department will act promptly and comprehensively to address them.”
According to DRC’s onsite investigator, Rebecca Whitley, the actions by the youth counselors, lack of controls and accountability as required by law and standard practice and evidence, has prompted DRC to expand its investigation to a second phase to determine how widespread the use of unwarranted force and restraint is at the facility as well as the deficiencies in oversight and accountability.