Experts look at youth offenders

Associated Press
Published: 6/21/2019 9:38:41 PM
Modified: 6/21/2019 9:38:28 PM

CONCORD — New Hampshire should consider intensely serving and studying its small number of incarcerated youth as it works to implement broader reforms, two national experts told an advisory group Friday.

The New Hampshire Child Advocate’s working group on juvenile justice invited Patrick McCarthy and Jane Tewksbury to discuss their work as members of Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, a group that promotes alternatives to youth prisons.

They praised New Hampshire for having fewer than 30 children in its youth detention center, and said it is making strides with recent legislation aimed at bolstering a comprehensive system of care for children with behavioral health challenges.

But they noted the high percentage of youth in group homes in other institutional settings, and urged state officials to focus on collaboration.

McCarthy, former president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a group focused on improving the well-being of children, urged state officials to see child welfare, juvenile justice, health and education as one big system instead of separate entities.

Tewksbury, a former commissioner of the Department of Youth Services in Massachusetts, agreed.

“Those kids are our kids. They don’t belong to one department. They belong to the community. They belong to their families,” she said.

Both said the small population at the Sununu Youth Services Center presents unique opportunities.

“You could start at the end of the system, which is incarceration in the juvenile justice system because that’s a very small number of children, and walk backward in those cases as to what parts of the system might have made a difference in keeping that child on track,” Tewksbury said.

McCarthy suggested the state select eight or 10 children at a time and focus on providing them with intense, individualized services. That not only would help those kids return home, but would provide valuable information to guide larger reform efforts, he said.

“That’s how you learn as you create a system so it’s tied to the actual needs of kids rather than what someone like me thinks a kid ought to need,” he said.

Several teenagers who live at a residential treatment facility for girls in northern New Hampshire attended Friday’s meeting. They described being moved from place to place and feeling punished for family problems.

Moira O’Neill, director of the Office of the Child Advocate, assured the teens that officials share a vision focused on ensuring they have access to mental health services and that parents have in-home support. Children surveyed at the youth detention center have expressed similar desires, she said.

“Most importantly, they told us they want us to listen to them,” she said.

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