October 5, 2010
Richard Cohen, Esq.
Rebecca Whitley, Esq.
The results of DRC’s second investigation of the Sununu Youth Services Center revealed a pervasive pattern of unnecessary and excessive force against children at the juvenile facility. DRC sampled 109 children and found that 42% had been subject to restraint one or more times during their stay at the Sununu Center. On average 60 children reside at the facility at any one time.
The types of restraints included escorts, arm controls, shoulder restraints, standing restraints, mechanical restraints, body wraps, takedowns, and supine and prone floor restraints. Prone restraint is a dangerous practice because it impairs a child’s breathing and exposes children to an unreasonable risk of death or injury. DRC has previously recommended that the Sununu Center discontinue the use of prone restraint. DRC’s investigation revealed that over half of restraint incidents at the Sununu Center involved a prone restraint.
Of the children subject to restraint, DRC found that staff used excessive force in 53% of the incidents and that 45% of the incidents clearly involved unnecessary use of force. DRC’s investigation also expressed serious concern over the pattern of complaints made by children at the Sununu Center to the internal Ombudsman, including disrespectful behavior by staff towards youth at the facility. Equally troubling was how lightly these complaints were taken.
DRC is the federally designated protection and advocacy agency for New Hampshire and has authority under federal law to conduct investigations in cases of probable abuse or neglect. DRC released its first investigation of SYSC in January 2009. That investigation found that two youth counselors at the Sununu Center physically abused and injured a 14-year old boy with mental illness during a restraint. DRC’s first investigation found that staff 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 youth had been restrained and injured by staff. About a year earlier, he sustained a fractured elbow as a result of staff physically restraining him.
According to Attorney Rebecca Whitley who conducted both DRC investigations, “many of the incidents and restraints we reviewed in the second investigation were very similar to what we described in our first investigation of the 14 year old boy.” Another unfortunate similarity between DRC’s first and second investigation “was the extent to which staff’s verbal or physical actions provoked situations or escalated the children’s behaviors,” according to Whitley.
DRC’s executive director, Richard Cohen, who has worked with many different populations of children and adults who have been confined or have disabilities, stated that “staff use of physical force or verbal abuse that we found at the Sununu Center would not be tolerated against adult prisoners.” “Ironically”, Cohen added “these kids by virtue of their age, disability, emotional fragility, and trauma history are more vulnerable to harm from these actions than most adults.”
The report is not all critical. DRC retained Christina Crowe, an expert in services to children in child protection and juvenile justice systems. She found that the Sununu Center is making progress in terms of mental health screening and treatment of youth in their care and reduction of restraint use. However, she also expressed concerns about the appropriateness of the use of restraint and questioned the need and effectiveness of delivering services to youth in a facility as large and institutional in nature as the Sununu Center. Based on her review, she opined that many of the children at the Sununu Center did not need this level of security and would be more effectively served in the community if those options were available.