February, 23 2018

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New Hampshire Police Rush to Find Homes for Troubled Teens

Seacoast police departments are scrambling to find money to house teenage runaways and other troubled teens because a federal grant used to pay for their care will be gone by tomorrow.

Why Losing the Grant put Police in a Pinch

For the past 17 years, the Exeter Police Department has provided a haven for juveniles who are not charged with a crime, but by law need a place to stay until they can be picked up by an appropriate adult or sent to court for a judge to decide their fate.

The federal grant has fully funded the Youth Attendant Program since 1990, but police recently learned that the thousands of dollars would be shut off on Oct. 1.

The many police departments that have relied on Exeter to house juveniles must now find alternatives.

Other Options to Help Teens

Officials say each department will have to absorb the cost of housing the juveniles at their own facilities or someplace else, an expense that can add up when considering the cost of paying officers overtime to supervise and feed them.

"We've provided for any community that's asked," Exeter Lt. Steve Dockery said. "It's a great alternative to throwing a kid in a cell and forgetting them."

Exeter's program has served as many as 19 police agencies on a regular basis. They include Atkinson, Brentwood, Candia, Deerfield, Dover, East Kingston, Epping, Hampton, Kensington, Kingston, Lee, Newmarket, Newton, Plaistow, Portsmouth, Sandown, Seabrook, Stratham and the Rockingham County Sheriff's Department.

Portsmouth police Capt. Janet Champlin is among those searching for placement for juveniles. She's checking with facilities such as the Chase Home for Children in Portsmouth or the Dover Children's Home to see if Portsmouth could contract the services. Like other police departments, Portsmouth will now have to pay.

Portsmouth has called on Exeter about six times a year.

"It's really been helpful to have that there, and it isn't just that we use it on average six times a year. It's the number of hours," Champlin said. "If we can't find a reasonable adult to take the child, then (he or she) has to be held. We don't have facilities to house children long term, and that's where the YAP (Youth Attendant Program) bed comes in."

How the Program Has Helped Troubled Youth in the Past

The program provided a place for children 17 and under to be housed, usually until they can go before a judge who must decide what to do with them. The juveniles are not charged with a crime, so they can't be locked up. Instead, they have been placed in Exeter's so-called "YAP bed," a room at the Police Department where they can stay overnight or sometimes over the weekend.

The program is often used to house juvenile runaways. However, Dockery said there are times when children are removed from a home because their parents are unfit. They've been housed at the police station until a relative could pick them up.

When a juvenile arrives at the station, an off-duty officer has been brought in and paid overtime to supervise. Money to pay the officer has come from the grant.

"This has not been an expense of the taxpayers of Exeter," Dockery said.

The federal grant money had been administered through the State Advisory Group on Juvenile Justice.

With cutbacks in federal funding, the State Advisory Group was forced in recent years to begin putting more restrictions on its grant program, according to Kevin Smith, senior policy manager for the Division for Juvenile Justice Services.

Two years ago the state began requiring police departments such as Exeter to present a plan on how they could sustain the program on their own. Exeter was given a three-year grant to keep the program going, and earlier this year it was asked to show how the program would be self-sustaining once the grant money ran out after the third year. Smith said the state decided to cut off the final year of Exeter's funding after it wasn't convinced that Exeter had a plan in place to operate the program when the grant ended.

"By not having this program, it puts all of us in a bind. If we pick up a juvenile on Friday night and have to watch him until Monday, there's substantial overtime costs for the town of Exeter. If Stratham picks up a runaway from South Carolina and has to hold him for the weekend, that's an enormous cost," Dockery said.

While the number of hours of supervision varies, Dockery said Exeter police usually put in between 400 to 500 hours a year watching juveniles in the program.

The children are housed in the police library, where an officer watches them at all times. The room, which has video and audio monitoring, offers some of the comforts of home. Couches pull out to make a bed. There's a microwave, refrigerator, puzzles and other games, and a TV with movies available to keep them entertained.

With the grant money, Exeter police have paid local restaurants to provide three meals a day for the children during their time in the program.

"It's a much less harsh environment than locking the kid up," Dockery said. "It's been a very useful tool for law enforcement because by law we can't lock them up."

Hampton police have used the Exeter program regularly to house juveniles from across the country who are picked up along the beach. They've even had to take in kids from Canada, Dockery said.

Other Benefits of the Program

He said the program has other benefits as well. Not only does it keep the kids safe, but it also allows them to see police in a different light. The officers who supervise them aren't in uniform, creating a more relaxed atmosphere. Children who might come from a troubled home get a chance to chat with an officer.

"There's a lot of interaction that goes on between the officer and the juvenile," Dockery said.

Exeter police Lt. Chris Fenerty, who has overseen the program, recently sent letters to area police agencies informing them about the funding cut.

"Each department is, quite frankly, going to have to fly by the seat of their pants," Dockery said.

Meanwhile, Stratham Police Chief Michael Daley voiced his concerns to selectmen recently.

"Until we find an alternative, there's a chance we're going to have to house them," Daley said. "It is something I didn't plan for."

Stratham's new police station does have adequate room for housing the juveniles.

Marty Wool, chairman of Stratham's Board of Selectmen, urged police to bring their concerns to lawmakers.

Newmarket police Chief Kevin Cyr said it's hard to budget the overtime for the officer who will have to care for the juveniles.

"You may have (no juveniles) this year, or you may have five," he said.

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