CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire would create a $100 million fund to settle claims of child sex abuse at its state-run youth detention center under a bipartisan bill that lawyers for the victims call offensive.
Ten former workers at the Youth Development Center in Manchester and one from a pre-trial facility in Concord were charged in April with either sexually assaulting or acting as accomplices to the assault of more than a dozen teenagers from 1994 to 2007. The center, now called the Sununu Youth Services Center, has been the target of a criminal investigation since 2019, and more than 400 men and women have come forward with allegations involving 150 staffers from 1960 to 2018.
Victims have filed about 350 nearly identical lawsuits against the state since a judge dismissed a class action lawsuit in May, and another 100 are expected to be filed by Thursday, when a House committee holds a public hearing on a late-drafted bill that would create an alternative way to address their claims. One of the bill’s sponsors said the attorney general’s office requested the legislation “as a way to help some of the victims get a speedier outcome with less trauma.”
“I think this is going to really help some people move on and not have the trauma of the courtroom,” said Rep. Kimberly Rice, R-Hudson.
Under the proposal, those who were held at the center from 1980 onward would have one year to file claims, starting in October. Participants would waive the right to seek compensation in court. Individual claims would be capped at $1.5 million and could be paid over a period of up to 10 years.
While the bill appropriates $100 million, the fund’s administrator could request additional money from the Legislature if a shortfall is likely to occur.
Attorney Rus Rilee called the bill tone-deaf but said he’s hopeful lawmakers will work with the survivor community to develop a fair, trauma-informed process. As it stands, the proposal requires victims to give up their legal rights with no guarantee that the state will compensate them fairly for their suffering, he said.
“This version of the bill is offensive to the hundreds of brave survivors of decades of systemic governmental child abuse who have come forward to tell their stories,” he said Monday.
Until recently, Rilee represented nearly all of the alleged victims. He has since teamed up with Nixon Peabody, an international law firm with more than 600 attorneys. One of them, David Vicinanzo, said Tuesday if the settlement fund is enacted, the state must tread carefully with victims who have very little reason to trust the state given that they were abused by it.
“They have an uphill climb to win back that trust, and that trust will need be earned,” said Vicinanzo, who previously served as a federal prosecutor including as the top assistant U.S. attorney for New Hampshire. He and five other attorneys from his firm have signed on to the youth center cases.
“There is no greater honor than to be trusted to seek justice for those who have been brutalized and neglected as children by our society and government, and who have no reason to trust anyone,” he said.
Another sponsor of the legislation, Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro, said it shows that the state is taking responsibility for the abuse. Rep. Patrick Long, a Manchester Democrat, agreed.
“It is absolutely a shame on the state,” he said. “I’m of a belief that we should accept what they say, compensate those that want to be compensated and ensure that this never happens again.”
The Manchester facility serves children ordered to a secure institutional setting by the juvenile justice system. Though it once held upwards of 100 youth, the typical population now is about a dozen teens, and the current state budget calls for replacing it with a much smaller facility in 2023.
Holly Ramer, The Associated Press