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Lawyers for YDC abuse victims ask judge to let cases proceed

Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, N.H.
Dan Tuohy
Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, N.H.

Lawyers representing hundreds of clients alleging they suffered physical and sexual abuse at the former Youth Development Center in Manchester want a judge to allow their cases to go to trial as soon as next month.

Lawyers Rus Rilee and David Vicinanzo, who represent more than 500 plaintiffs who allege they suffered abuse at the hands of the state stretching back to the 1960s, filed a motion this week to end the stay on litigation imposed by a Merrimack County judge in February.

“Five years have passed since the first of these survivors brought their stories to state authorities,” the motion states. “While plaintiffs have been patient and were encouraged by the Attorney General’s initial response, in recent months it has become increasingly clear that the state is now resolved on a defense strategy that succeeds by delay.”

The push to start litigation comes as the state hopes to persuade abuse victims to settle claims against the state through a $100 million victims compensation fund, signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu last month.

That settlement process, which caps awards and in some circumstances requires victims to waive their right to also seek relief in the courts, is criticized in Rilee and Vicinanzo’s motion as falling “well short of the victim-centered, trauma-informed the Attorney General and legislators had promised.”

Attorney General John Formella was the driving force behind the legislation, and lawmakers largely followed his lead as it worked its way through the State House.

Formella has described the settlement fund as “historic” and as a “gentler” and faster way for victims to resolve claims against the state rather than through litigation.

The state has also so far charged 11 people in with multiple counts of sexual assault in abuse cases tied to the state’s youth detention facility.

A spokesman for Formella bristled at Rilee and Vicinanzo’s characterization of the state’s handling of the abuse cases.

“Any suggestion that the Attorney General’s Office is ‘dragging its feet’ or ‘trying to pay out as little as possible’ is categorically false,” said Michael Garrity, the DOJ’s director of Communication. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We have been attempting to work with plaintiffs’ counsel in good faith and are disappointed by this inflammatory and unnecessary filing.”

The filing also alleges that abuse of minors at the former YDC, now known as the Sununu Center, is ongoing, and cites an alleged incident this month where “a child was beaten while handcuffed in his room and had to wait for hours before being taken to Catholic Medical Center with laceration and a broken shoulder.”

The filing also notes that some top state officials, including then-Attorney General Tom Rath saw these problems coming decades ago.

“There is no question that the potential exists for the YDC (Youth Development Center) to be the next Laconia [State School] in terms of litigation,” the motion says, quoting a 1980 news story.

‘“If there is an area where we have been deficient in this state, it has been in this regard,’” Rath said in that earlier news report.

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