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Lawsuit alleges NH child protection agency and other institutions failed to intervene in alleged child abuse, slavery

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Joe Gratz
Flickr, creative commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/63126465@N00/117048243

A 19-year-old woman is suing New Hampshire’s child protective services agency, local law enforcement and other institutions for allegedly failing to rescue her from years of neglect, abuse and slavery by her adoptive parents.

The 70-page lawsuit filed in Merrimack Superior Court on Monday alleges Olivia Atkocaitis's adoptive parents subjected her to years of abuse, including locking her in a basement with her own human waste, handcuffing her, beating her and demanding that she give them massages. The lawsuit also alleges that Olivia, who was born in China, was subject to "demeaning racial epithets."

Olivia escaped in 2018, at age 15, and was put in state custody.

“Olivia is only able to bring this civil action because she dug her way through the walls of a basement prison, and then ran for her life, to freedom, after suffering years of imprisonment and forced servitude within a home the defendants placed her in, and to which the defendants returned her, repeatedly,” the lawsuit reads.

Olivia's adoptive parents, Thomas and Denise Atkocaitis, are also among the named defendants in the lawsuit. They were arrested in 2018 and indicted on charges related to Olivia’s welfare.

According to an affidavit filed at the time, Olivia tore through the basement drywall to escape her room. She told police she had been grounded for several months because “she did not wipe the dog’s feet and fed the lamas [sic] the wrong way."

When police visited the home, they said they found an 8-by-8 basement room with a single mattress and a door with an alarm on it that activated when opened. When they visited again, police said the room had been dismantled. Police arrested Thomas and Denise, and Olivia was put into state custody.

According to court records, Denise pleaded guilty to one charge of criminal restraint and did not serve jail time, while Thomas Atkocaitis pleaded guilty to one charge of endangering the welfare of a child and served six months.

NHPR attempted to reach Thomas and Denise Atkocaitis by phone and email to request comment on the lawsuit but did not hear back as of the time of publication.

The lawsuit filed this week alleges that, prior to Olivia’s 2018 escape, law enforcement and other institutions failed to protect her in spite of multiple reports of abuse and concerns about violence in her home. Other named defendants include the local school district, New Boston police, the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families (or DCYF), and the adoption agency overseeing Olivia’s adoption, Wide Horizons.

According to the complaint, Olivia tried to escape her home several times, but New Boston police found her and returned her home. The lawsuit alleges police reported Thomas and Denise Atkocaitis several times to DCYF — which investigates child abuse and neglect and can initiate removal from the home — but the agency failed to take action.

The lawsuit also notes that an outside review of DCYF released while Olivia was a child identified a number of red flags in how the state handled reports of abuse and neglect. The department has long been understaffed and under scrutiny, including in its more recent handling of the disappearance of5-year-old Harmony Montgomery of Manchester and of ongoing allegations of abuse at the state-run Sununu Youth Services Center.

“Whatever view you have about the role of government and community in our lives, when it comes to children, there’s too much evidence of child abuse to believe that we can protect them with a ‘stay out of my business’ kind of attitude,” Michael Lewis, Olivia’s attorney, told NHPR.

Michael Courtney, who serves as counsel for the town of New Boston, said the town denies any claim that it failed to protect Olivia. He said it was their investigation “which ultimately led to the removal of the plaintiff from the home and conditions her adopted parents subjected her to.”

“It was also the New Boston Police Department who filed felony level charges and arrested both Thomas and Denise Atkocaitis for offenses committed against the Plaintiff,” Courtney wrote in response to NHPR’s request for comment on the lawsuit.

Brian Balke, the superintendent of SAU 19, the district named in the lawsuit, said he could not comment on the case. Neither Wide Horizons nor a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees child protective services, responded to a request for comment as of press time.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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