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N.H. settlement fund for youth center victims advances to Senate

Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, N.H.
Dan Tuohy
A sign for the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, N.H.

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A $100 million settlement for sexual and physical abuse claims at a state-run youth detention center was approved by the New Hampshire House on Wednesday, and now heads to the state Senate.

The proposal would create a settlement fund to compensate those who were abused as children at the Sununu Youth Services Center, formerly the Youth Development Center. Victims of sexual abuse would be eligible for payments of up to $1.5 million each, while payments to victims of physical abuse would be capped at $150,000.

“For the first time in decades, the state of New Hampshire has stood up to the plate and said, ‘We are responsible, and we are going to be accountable for righting the wrongs of many, many decades,’” said Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn.

The Manchester center has been the target of a criminal investigation since 2019, and 11 former workers were arrested in April. Nearly 450 former residents have sued the state, with allegations involving more than 150 staffers from 1963 to 2018.

The Republican-led House rejected amendments offered by Democrats that would have increased the cap on individual payments for sexual abuse to $4.5 million and would have allowed claims based on emotional abuse.

“If you make the scope too big, your project is going to fail,” Edwards said in arguing against expanding the settlement to include emotional abuse. “It’s messy and would open up the settlement fund beyond what we’re ready to do initially.”

Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord, a former prosecutor, said multi-million dollar jury awards would be likely if victims take their cases to trial instead.

“If we want plaintiffs to come to the table, we must be realistic about the logical and likely financial risks,” said Rogers.

Rep. Patrick Long, D-Manchester, offered another argument in favor of broadening the bill’s scope, and possibly the amount awarded.

“Although the appropriation is an extremely large allocation, I’m reminded of the tax dollars that went toward the perpetration of these acts,” he said.

The state currently spends $13 million a year to operate the 144-bed facility, though the typical population now is about a dozen teens. The two-year budget signed in June included a mandate to close it by March 2023.

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