N.H. State Health Leader Rebuts Allegations of Illegal Restraint at Youth Center

May 16, 2018

N.H. Department of Health and Human Services offices in Concord.
Credit NHPR File Photo
 

Last week, the Disability Rights Center of New Hampshire released a report that accused staff at the Sununu Youth Services Center of using unlawful restraint against residents multiple times over the past few years.

The report came after an investigation into an alleged use of improper restraint on a 14-year-old boy in 2016 that left him with a broken shoulder. Now the state is rebutting those allegations. In a report signed by Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers, the state says the DRC was at times factually incorrect and drew unsubstantiated conclusions.

 

All Things Considered host Peter Biello interviewed Chris Tappan, Associate Commissioner for Human Services and Behavioral Health, about the allegations. She's speaking on behalf of the Department and Commissioner Meyers. 

(Below is a lightly edited transcript.)

So the DRC alleges that two Sununu center employees used unlawful restraint on this boy,who is identified as Zach. The state believes, according to this report, that the use of unlawful restraint was actually justified - it wasn't unlawful. Why do you believe that?

So first of all I'd like to say that just to confirm this is not just the state's response. There were multiple groups that looked into the situation. So there is the Special Investigations Unit at DHHS which is the first to respond to these types of incidences. They were overseen by the Department of Justice. Then additionally there is the also the state police as well as the attorney general looked into that. So it's a conclusion that's drawn by all of those entities.

The DHHS one would argue is sort of investigating itself in this case?

It is but again with oversight. It's something that we do independently and objectively and that we have standards that we approach in terms of policy and investigation as we do with all of the incidences of concern in this facility or in any other facility.

OK. We'll explain the perspective, why is this not unlawful restraint because D.R.C. alleges that it is because apparently this boy Zach, according to D.R.C,  was not in an emergency situation, and the law as written doesn't require or didn't require restraint in this circumstance, according to the DRC.

Certainly we recognize as the DRC does that many of these kids come away with mental health issues significant behavioral issues and have potentially experienced complex trauma. We had moved to therapeutic Crisis Intervention in 2015 and we're continuing to strengthen our therapeutic approaches so we're actually at this point beginning to implement now an evidence based practice that's used in residential facilities called trust based relational intervention. And the idea here is really to as much as possible be able to de-escalate these situations sooner without having to put hands on a youth. No one wants to do that, but when we do do that  it's always because there is a belief that there is some serious and imminent risk to either the youth or to someone else who is a third party in a situation -- that could be a staffer could be another youth that's there.

So in this situation was a risk to himself in your view or as a risk to someone else?

The youth was a seemed to be escalating both in terms of physically escalating in the room that he was in but physically escalating in terms of banging on the door and verbally expressing you know very significant frustration and anger. And what that was doing was exciting sort of everybody on the unit. So there's other youth, and part of the inaccuracies was that the DRC didn't actually reference those other statements by other witnesses. There is no audio on the video recordings and that is protect confidentiality. However there were investigations that took place that collected statements from others that were there and that information really helped the state police and the attorney general's office as well as our special investigations unit draw their conclusions that this was not abuse.

The children under the Sununu Center's care, they are in some cases not well, and they are aggressive and they would often swear, as Zach allegedly did. And if that is the case, then it seems like the Sununu Center would have broad latitude to use this kind of restraint. Is that what you're saying - that the Sununu center, because these kids are the way they are and they are sometimes aggressive, has this broad latitude to use this kind of restraint?

No, not at all. I think what we are but what the staff at the Sununu center do and keep in mind we have really an incredible therapeutic milieu there. We have a full-time psychiatrist. We have counselors that are available every day as well as having our youth counselors trained what they are responsible to do is really understand the the whole picture for this particular youth when they express those kinds of behaviors.

So what has been their history of violence towards them self or others have they had a history of self injury or self harm. And then additionally have they had a history of violence towards others and in this situation in Zach's situation, he had both of those, had both in both self-insurance behavior and had assaulted the others, and so there really that has to be considered in terms of staff in that moment attempting to determine what's the level of risk of escalation of the behavior to cause him harm in terms of hitting or banging the doors or to potentially come out of the room and cause others harm.