It is time to close the Sununu Center once and for all. New Hampshire needs to create a treatment facility that not only protects at-risk youth but saves taxpayers money. The budget for SYSC this biennium proposed by Gov. Sununu is $13.1 million in Fiscal Year 1 and $13.7 million in Fiscal Year 2 with an average population of 12 kids and over 100 staff. Treatment programs like Becket Family of Services are where those kids would get the best treatment to become better young men and young women. It is time to transition from youthful imprisonment, to therapeutic treatment for youthful offenders.
Not every youth who is sent to SYSC is a criminal. Some kids are there because they have issues at home. One of the reasons I was at SYSC was because I was physically and mentally abused by my mother. She would often say, “When you smile you look just like your father, and I want to punch you in the face.”
When I became a state representative, I chose to sit on the Children and Family Law Committee because I knew that was where I could make the most impact. I decided I was going to make it my life’s work to change and reform the juvenile justice and child protection system. In committee, we often hear how important it is for at-risk youth to have a positive role model in their life if they are going to be successful. The recipe for resilience is a nurturing supportive relationship, a safe & stable place to live, a sense of connectedness to the community, as well as learning social and emotional competencies & how to express feelings. These skills and relationships are not learned at SYSC but are taught at therapeutic group homes.
Before going to a group home, I spent 3.5 months at SYSC for my first time. It was dreadful. We were treated like deviants, we had to keep our hands at our side, we were told “don’t touch the wall, don’t speak, eyes front.” I recall a time when my unit and I were walking back from the cafeteria and one of the kids had been dragging his hand against the wall. The “officer” yelled and the line stopped. The officer was yelling at one of us, but we all got punished with solitude in our rooms, which was a regular occurrence, and their way of not dealing with us. They abused this punishment constantly.
It wasn’t until I went to a group home where I met the residential therapist, Ian, who taught me the skills that I never learned at SYSC. Group homes offer support kids desperately need. It took some time to figure myself out, but I eventually persevered. I often hear people say that kids who are youthful offenders can’t be reformed. You have to remember these are kids, and they aren’t inherently bad. For most of them, juvenile prison or group homes are the only stability they have ever seen or had. A therapeutic group home can often be a turning point in a child’s life.
The closure of this facility is in the budget for 2022. The state needs to find a long-term solution prior to this closing. Since first learning of the potential closure, I started working with my colleagues to find a stable, suitable situation for these kids that would act as a treatment center and not as a prison replacement. I’ve been working with the House Finance Committee, Moira O’Neil from the Child Advocate’s office, John DeJoie from Waypoint, as well as other legislators with a vested interest. In addition, I have been in contact with Becket Family of Services; they state they will be able to accomplish the services the state would require similar to a program being implemented in Vermont.
When Vermont closed its facility before finding a solution, they ended up needing to contract with SYSC. Currently, Vermont is working on renovating a secure facility. I’m hopeful New Hampshire will soon follow in its footsteps to help these youthful offenders.
It is time we start putting the needs of these kids first. Coming from a former youthful offender turned state legislator, I will make it my top priority to find a viable solution for their success. To all the kids in the system now, if you’re reading this, you too can be successful. You just have to want it.
To those who believe I won’t make a good partner on this, I am the only one uniquely qualified with both the personal and educational knowledge that is willing to put in the effort that these kids need and deserve, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it’s time.
Cody Belanger is a State Rep. from Epping who serves on the Children and Family Law Committee.