Sununu Center leaning on mandatory overtime amid staff crisis, as workers raise alarm about unprecedented injuries

Oct. 18—Amid a staffing crisis that has left New Hampshire's juvenile detention facility less than half-staffed and has led to mandated overtime, the union that represents workers at the Sununu Youth Services Center is raising concerns about the number of employees injured on the job.

For the past week, staff at the center and juvenile-justice staff brought in to offset the shortage of staff have been required to work overtime.

The state also has asked volunteers from other divisions of the state Department of Health and Human Services to work overtime shifts at the center after some training. Joseph Ribsam, director of the Division of Children, Youth and Families, said about 50 volunteers are coming through training.

Even with these interventions, Ribsam said the center has been struggling to maintain preferred staff levels.

A widespread shortage of people willing to work stressful, low-paying human services jobs around the country has been exacerbated by the uncertain future of the Sununu Youth Services Center.

The Legislature passed a bill requiring the center to close in March 2023. In May 2022, legislators could not agree on what should replace the center — leaving the future uncertain and adding another layer of difficulty to an already-tough employment market, Ribsam said.

Over the summer, 10 of the center's "youth counselors," the front-line staff who work with incarcerated children and teenagers, applied for other jobs and left largely because of the looming closure, leaving the center with 20 counselors, Ribsam said. The ideal staffing level is 45 youth counselors, he said. Two of the center's four teachers also left in the summer of 2022.

Unprecedented police responses

Short-staffing has made working at the center more difficult, the union that represents Sununu Center staff and many other state workers said in a statement.

The State Employees Association said the center is becoming more dangerous. "Staff injuries are now commonplace," read the association's statement, issued Tuesday on behalf of Sununu Center staff.

The union said in the past three months, Sununu Center staff have had to call for help from police or for medical help more than 10 times.

"This is unprecedented," the statement read, "and our agencies are broken."

Ribsam said the police responses to the Sununu Center are unprecedented.

In the five years Ribsam has been in New Hampshire, he said state police had never been called to assist Sununu Center staff dealing with children until this past August.

Since then, Ribsam said state police were called to the center once in September and again on Oct. 7. A scuffle between teenagers and state police involved one juvenile reaching for a trooper's firearm, Ribsam said.

State police have declined to discuss the responses beyond confirming them. The Union Leader filed a Right-to-Know request for incident reports from the Oct. 7 scuffle, and was told that it would take at least three months to obtain the public records.

On Sunday, Ribsam said, an employee was taken from the center in an ambulance after a physical altercation with one of the teenagers in the center.

That was at least the second time in recent months a Sununu Center employee was hospitalized, he said.

The State Employees Association said Sununu Center staff are on edge because of the injuries.

"While we are grateful our injured co-workers are still with us, some have suffered severe injuries, and the safety of the employees and the children we are entrusted to care for is at risk," the association said.

Overtime and training

As of last week, overtime has been required of Sununu Center staff and Juvenile Probation and Parole Officers. Ribsam said he regretted that mandatory overtime was needed to keep safe staffing levels, but he hoped it would be temporary.

An email Ribsam sent to employees, obtained by the Union Leader, said that after staff volunteered for extra shifts, mandatory overtime would be distributed from least-senior to most-senior staff.

The Sununu Center also is leaning on juvenile probation and parole officers to staff the center, as well as a staffing agency and employees from other parts of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Ribsam said about 50 employees who have never worked at the Sununu Center are undergoing some basic training in sexual-abuse prevention, learning to use handcuffs and how to physically defend themselves.

Those new volunteers will initially "shadow" more experienced Sununu Center staff, Ribsam said, but could eventually be on their own with the children and teenagers.

No way out?

In a statement, the union that represents Sununu Center staff said the center is becoming too dangerous.

"SYSC and Juvenile Justice in NH are in crisis with no solution in sight," the statement read.

While the dozen children and teenagers confined in the Sununu Center are there because of their complex behavioral health needs, trauma histories and at-times violent behavior, Ribsam said it's not beyond the level of what the Sununu Center can deal with — when fully staffed.

"The staffing numbers have gotten so low that it's not just the ability to respond to an incident but it's the ability to engage with kid every day," Ribsam said.

When there are enough staff at the center to fully engage the kids, he said — working with them during the day, playing basketball and badminton, working on their schoolwork — the kids have tended to be less likely to lash out.

Ribsam said there aren't other, safer, places for the children and teenagers incarcerated at the Sununu Center. Neighboring states have closed their juvenile detention facilities or are facing staff crises of their own.

But until the Legislature gives some certainty to the center, Ribsam said staffing will remain a problem.

"Until we actually make that decision, this kind of cloud is going to make it really hard to stabilize and hire the staff that we need to make this place run well."