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N.H. legislative committee declines to approve plan to compensate YDC victims

Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, N.H.
Dan Tuohy
The state is slated to start accepting claims Jan. 1 and must have a claims administrator in place before that.

This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.

After citing multiple concerns, lawmakers declined Wednesday to approve the Attorney General’s Office’s proposed plan for compensating hundreds of people sexually and physically abused while held at the former Youth Development Center.

Instead, the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee asked Attorney General John Formella to come back after his office had addressed those concerns, which ranged from valuing types of rape differently to potentially excluding victims unable to navigate such a complicated claims form without a lawyer.

“If you ever tried to handle this document pro se, you’re out of your mind,” Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, told Formella. He added, “We want to give justice. Justice delayed is justice denied, and some of these people have waited a long, long period of time.”

Lawmakers allotted $100 million to compensate victims abused as children while in the state-run detention center. House Bill 1677 directed the Attorney General’s Office to create a settlement process that provided victims a friendlier and faster alternative to a court fight. Formella came to the fiscal committee Wednesday seeking approval to move forward with his proposed plan, which included claims forms, guidelines for valuing sexual and physical abuse, and the state’s process for investigating claims and deciding whether and how much to pay victims.

Some fiscal committee members acknowledged the daunting task handed to Formella and commended the office for its efforts. But their questions and concerns dominated most of the three-hour meeting.

Sen. Gary Daniels, a Milford Republican, wanted confirmation current residents of the renamed Sununu Youth Services Center could file a claim given that Formella’s proposed plan mentions only those who “resided” at the facility. “I think they would qualify,” Formella said.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican and co-sponsor of HB 1677, noted that victims would be paid less for each instance of abuse if they had been assaulted many times. “One (incident) whether it’s sexual abuse or physical abuse is devastating, but multiple become exponentially more devastating,” he told Formella.

Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat, asked why the compensation for oral rape and anal rape were different. “It’s all rape, right? And it’s rape of children,” she said. Formella said the department considered a number of factors in valuing abuse, including input from victims’ attorneys.

Payments are capped at $1.5 million for sexual abuse or sexual and physical abuse, and $150,000 for physical abuse. Child advocates and a defense attorney who is representing more than 600 victims have criticized those as too low.

Rosenwald expressed concerns too about Formella’s expectation that the average award would total $700,000. If so, Rosenwald said, there would be enough money to settle with only 142 victims. She asked Formella if he expected to litigate the rest of the claims in court.

Formella said mitigating factors, such as the state’s knowledge of the abuse at the time, could lower those awards. He said he does not know how many victims will choose litigation but is prepared to defend the state in court.

“I’ve always viewed this process as an alternative option which the state could provide but not a process that we’re putting forward because we are afraid to litigate,” Formella said. “So we are prepared to litigate any cases we need to.”

Committee Chairwoman Karen Umberger raised concerns about incarcerated victims’ ability to find a lawyer to navigate the process. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Committee Chairwoman Karen Umberger, a Kearsarge Republican and co-sponsor of HB 1677, wanted to know how victims who are incarcerated would find a lawyer to help them navigate the settlement process. “I have no idea if there’s even anyone currently incarcerated. But I didn’t see a really good procedure in here.”

Formella told her a significant number of victims are currently incarcerated and many have the same attorney. “For someone who does not already have an attorney, I don’t know what that exact process would be,” he told Umberger. “It’s something we could talk to the Department of Corrections about.”

Following the meeting, Michael Garrity, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said they appreciated the committee’s feedback and “look forward to resubmitting our documents with updates.”

The state is slated to start accepting claims Jan. 1 and must have a claims administrator in place before that. Garrity said the office is confident it’s on track to meet those deadlines if the committee approves the revised plan.

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: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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