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More Victims Come Forward Alleging Abuse At N.H. Youth Detention Center

N.H. Youth Services Center
Youth Services Center

A class action lawsuit filed Saturday alleges decades of abuse at New Hampshire's state-run youth detention center, known as the Sununu Youth Services Center.

The suit comes six months after two former counselors were charged with repeatedly raping a teenage boy at the Manchester center in the late 1990s.

(Scroll down for full interview with attorney Rus Rilee)

Rus Rilee, the attorney representing the 36 alleged victims, says more victims have come forward since the suit was filed over the weekend. 

"My phone is ringing off the hook,” he says. “I can't keep up with the volume of people that are leaving me messages telling me that it's happened to them, too."

Rilee says that the allegations reveal more than a few bad actors, but a larger systemic issue. 

"I hope it’s being run differently now," he says. "But I don't have any satisfaction that that's the case, especially given that one of my clients was as recently as 2014." 

Rilee urges anyone who is a survivor of the alleged abuse to reach out to their local rape crisis center, state police, and the attorney general's office. 

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

Two of the alleged perpetrators are already facing criminal charges, and the AG's office has launched what it's calling a "comprehensive investigation" into the facility. Why do you feel it's necessary to launch a separate civil case against the facility and the state?

Well, I think the civil case is very important in that it's going to show the breadth of this problem to the public, and it's going to help to hold the state accountable for decades of systemic child abuse of our most vulnerable child population.

David Meehan was the alleged victim in the criminal case, and now he's the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that includes 35 additional alleged victims. What has happened between now and six months ago that compelled Mr. Meehan and others to come forward?

Well, David has wanted to come forward for a long time, but he's been very mindful of the criminal justice process and letting that play out. There are obviously time considerations that relate to when or how long people have to file civil claims, so that was kind of an overarching, pressing issue that we had to deal with in bringing this lawsuit when we did. We also felt that it was important that the number of people that have come forward have made this so clear that it's such a huge, systemic problem that we wanted to bring it to the public's attention.

And there's more detail than we could possibly get into here. But in general, what does this new lawsuit allege happened to these victims?

So over the past many decades, going back as far as 1982 and as far forward as 2014 right now, these are boys and girls who were taken into state custody, they were beaten, raped, and tortured by the very state employees whose sole job it was to protect them. They were subject to physical abuse, to sexual abuse, to mental and emotional abuse, to extended periods of solitary confinement, and to deprivation of educational services that were mandated to be given to them by the state.

And are you arguing that this is more than just a few bad actors, but this is more of a systemic issue?

Absolutely. And that's the most important part of this lawsuit is to bring about systemic change. Certainly there were bad actors and there are many of them who haven't even been identified in this court filing, but will be identified in the future. This was a system where no one was watching what people were doing to children. There was no oversight. There was no supervision. There was no training. And a system like that cannot be allowed in this state any longer. And we wanted to make sure that this system is turned upside down so that another child can never be hurt. 

As this case gets more and more publicity, do you think more victims will come forward?

More victims already have. My phone is ringing off the hook. I can't keep up with the volume of people that are leaving me messages telling me that it's happened to them, too.

So do you anticipate growing the official number of alleged victims who are currently plaintiffs in this lawsuit?

Absolutely. It's growing by the day already.

I see. Okay. Is there anything else that you feel that people should know about this case?

I don't think so. I think it's being covered pretty heavily in the media. And I think they're going to be a lot of twists and turns to this story that people aren't really going to expect and it's going to shock a lot of people. But I'll leave that to, you know, the ongoing civil litigation.

Most importantly, one thing I do want to say, though, is that David Meehan wanted me to convey this to anyone that's out there that's listening that's a survivor of this horrific abuse. He wants you to be supported, and he wants you to reach out to your local rape crisis centers. And most importantly, he wants you to reach out to state police and to the attorney general's office. They're doing a fantastic job under horrendous circumstances, trying to, you know, trying to hold people accountable. It's important for people that have stories to contact the attorney general and contact the state police and tell them their stories.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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