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State House roundup: Victim advocates raise objections to youth center settlement fund

The exterior of the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, N.H. (NHPR photo)
Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR
Sen. Jeb Bradley, a co-sponsor of the bill outlining settlement provisions for hundreds who've said they were abused at the state's former Youth Development Center, said lawmakers can revisit the issue next session if the fund falls short of its goals.

The Senate passed legislation Thursday allotting $100 million to settle claims with the hundreds of people who’ve said they were sexually or physically abused as children while held at the state’s former Youth Development Center.

Over the fierce objections of victim advocates and their lawyers, payments are capped at $1.5 million for sexual abuse and $150,000 for physical abuse. Claims of emotional abuse will not be considered.

Advocates and attorneys have warned lawmakers that excluding emotional abuse and refusing to increase caps will discourage many victims from using the fund. Sen. Becky Whitley, a Hopkinton Democrat, cited those concerns Thursday night, urging colleagues to increase the caps in House Bill 1677 to $2 million and $200,000.

“These victims deserve better,” Whitley said. “We need to go back to the drawing board with all the stakeholders around the table, including this time, the victim advocacy community, and we need to get this right. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the least we can do for these victims.”

When that failed, all Senate Democrats voted against the bill.

It was one of dozens of bills lawmakers in the House and Senate took up Thursday under a midnight deadline to vote on the year’s remaining bills. They also voted to expand absentee voting and passed one-time payments for some retirees, while defeating the Democrats’ latest attempt to pass a law preventing the state from restricting abortion access beyond the existing 24-week ban.

Bills that started in one body and were modified by the other will return to their originating chamber, where lawmakers will decide whether to accept changes.

The YDC settlement fund has had widespread support in and outside of the State House for creating a “gentler,” less confrontational settlement process that allows victims to avoid going to court. The dispute has centered on the caps; inclusion of only physical and sexual abuse; and the inability of victims unhappy with their settlement to take their case to court.

The attorney representing more than 400 people alleging abuse said he will encourage his clients to take the state to court instead because he believes the jury would treat them more fairly.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican and bill co-sponsor, said if the fund falls short of its goals, lawmakers can revisit it next session.

“One hundred million is a significant amount of money, and we don’t know what the end results will be, but it is nevertheless an admission that we as the state need to address the claims,” he said. “And $100 million is a major, major, major commitment to doing that.”

Advocacy groups issued statements immediately after the vote.

“To be clear: The bill that passed today is not victim-centered and does not seek to make victims whole,” said Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “HB 1677 fails hundreds of children who were abused by employees of the state of New Hampshire.”

Marissa Chase, executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Justice, which represents trial lawyers, said a settlement fund should capture the largest number of victims possible.

“There will always be (victims whose cases have) egregious facts to support going to court, and there will always be a portion of those harmed that may not have the most persuasive cases,” she said. “We should try to capture the middle 80 percent. By instituting caps that are too low by not reflecting current case value, we are disincentivizing the majority of victims from using this process.”

Attorney General John Formella issued his own statement.

“No victim is required to use this process,” he said, “but it is my hope that this bill will provide an avenue for much needed healing and compensation for many of these victims.”


Employer rights

Business leaders succeeded in blocking a bill that would have set aside employer noncompete agreements when a worker leaves following an undefined “material change” in their employment. House Bill 1089 initially applied to employees who decide to quit rather than comply with a vaccine mandate.

Opponents warned the bill was so vague it could include simple changes in work duties, hours, or supervisor. The Senate voted to send it to interim study without debate.


Retirees

Retired state and municipal retirees would get a one-time $500 payment to mitigate increasing expenses with the Senate’s passage of House Bill 1535. The vote overturned a committee recommendation that it be killed, partly due to its $11.75 million price tag. In opposing the bill Thursday, Sen. Gary Daniels, a Milford Republican, said all his constituents are contending with increasing costs.

“They too would like a quote-unquote one-time allowance, but we are not going to consider them,” he said.


Voting

People who are sick would be allowed to vote by absentee ballot if the version of House Bill 144 passed by the Senate becomes law. The bill also aims to make absentee ballots more user friendly. The Senate already tried to expand absentee voting access with Senate Bill 427, an effort that failed in the House.

The latest version of the Republican-backed map for new congressional districts passed the House, 179-159, mostly along party lines. Senate Bill 200 includes the so-called “I-93” map, drawn by Rep. Ross Berry, a Manchester Republican. The governor has criticized the map, which he called extremely partisan and not competitive.


Abortion

House and Senate Democrats continued attempts Thursday to codify a person’s right to abortion in state law.

Their attempt to amend Senate Bill 399 by adding legal protections for abortion rights failed immediately, with the House voting, 177-156, to table it.


Immigration

A bill targeting so-called “sanctuary cities” was blocked in the Senate, where lawmakers recommended interim study for House Bill 1266. The vote was a win for immigrant rights advocates and undocumented people in the state. The bill would have made it illegal for state or local governments to limit police cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The Senate Judiciary Committee was concerned that would have impacted the State Police’s Fairness in Policing Policy.


Animals

The Senate killed House Bill 1356, a bill that began as an effort to protect squirrels by limiting their hunting season until babies had matured but was amended to allow them to be hunted year round.

And the Senate kept an eye out for pets during emergencies, passing House Bill 1186, which would require hotels or community shelters to let those seeking housing after being evacuated to bring their pets with them.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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