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New Hampshire still challenged by youth center abuse scandal

The Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, N.H.
Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR
The Legislature is moving ahead with plans to close the Sununu Youth Services Center, which once housed upward of 100 children in the past but now typically serves about 10. Lawmakers in 2021 mandated its closure by March 2023 but couldn't agree on how to replace it. The state Senate last week approved a bill that calls for a new facility to be built by November 2024.

Six years have passed since David Meehan told police he was brutally beaten and raped as a child at New Hampshire's youth detention center. It's been three years since he sued the state and almost two years since a broad criminal investigation produced any arrests. Trial dates are months, if not years, in the future.

"I'm not happy," Meehan said last week after lawyers for the state asked a judge to gut his lawsuit and altogether dismiss hundreds of similar claims.

"The state is doing everything it can, still, to protect itself," he said. "I've had enough."

Years after Meehan came forward, the abuse allegations at the Sununu Youth Services Center, formerly called the Youth Development Center, continue to present complex challenges. While law enforcement and the legal system grapple with the Manchester facility's troubled past, lawmakers are still figuring out its future. None of it is simple, or fast.

"It's in everyone's best interest to do all we can to help victims find justice," said Michael Garrity, spokesperson for the attorney general's office.

That office is both prosecuting former workers and defending the state against more than 700 lawsuits, though the work is done by separate teams. It is overseeing an independently administered $100 million settlement fund for victims who don't want to go to court. The two-year window to file claims opened this month.

"It is up and running, and we would encourage victims to take a close look at it," Garrity said.

Ten men were charged in April 2021 with either sexually assaulting or acting as accomplices to the assault of more than a dozen teenagers from 1994 to 2007, while an 11th man faces charges related to a pre-trial facility in Concord. Six trials have been scheduled between this summer and July 2024.

Attorneys for the victims accuse the attorney general's office of delaying the prosecutions to avoid creating additional civil liability for the state, which has been hit by more than 700 lawsuits that have been consolidated into one case.

Both sides were in court last week to discuss the state's motions to dismiss six of the seven counts of the master complaint and to severely limit the one remaining count. Lawyers for the state argue that the complaint is a confusing mishmash of theories and nonexistent causes of action, and that only those who suffered abuse since 2017 are eligible to sue. That would eliminate all but roughly 20 plaintiffs.

In court documents, the state attorneys acknowledged that their arguments "may seem to promote a harsh result," but insisted they were not trying to diminish the many credible abuse allegations.

"To the extent plaintiffs are unable to recover in this consolidated action, they are not without a remedy," they wrote, referring to the settlement fund. "This court should not disrupt the statutory and common law of New Hampshire to create a remedy when that is not necessary."

Attorneys for the victims — Rus Rilee and David Vicinanzo — counter that the state is taking "sweeping and extraordinarily aggressive positions."

"This disreputable attempt by the state to evade responsibility to the children it harmed, and to suppress a public and meaningful accounting of its malfeasance, should be rejected in the strongest terms by the judiciary, our last hope for justice for these victims and for avoiding a future repetition of the largest child abuse scandal in the history of the state," they wrote.

Their clients' allegations span six decades, with 150 staffers during that time accused of physically or sexually harming hundreds of children at a facility Rilee has called a "magnet for predators."

A judge hasn't ruled on the state's dismissal motions but indicated he agreed the cases should go to trial with plaintiffs grouped in batches starting in March 2024 with Meehan. The Associated Press does not typically name people who say they have been victims of sexual assault, unless they go public, as Meehan has.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is moving ahead with plans to close the center, which once housed upward of 100 children in the past but now typically serves about 10. Lawmakers in 2021 mandated its closure by March 2023 but couldn't agree on how to replace it. The state Senate last week approved a bill that calls for a new facility to be built by November 2024. The new center would be built for 12 residents, with room for up to 18 if necessary.

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