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.
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.
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.