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Changes to youth detention abuse fund could lead to hundreds of settlements, price tag unknown

photo of Formella testifying before Senate Judiciary committee
Todd Bookman
New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, in support of changes to the Youth Development Center settlement fund.

The state of New Hampshire and lawyers representing more than 1,100 plaintiffs who allege abuse at government-run youth detention facilities are backing reforms to a settlement fund that could result in many cases now settling out of court.

The proposed changes include raising the maximum payout cap from $1.5 million to $2.5 million for those who suffered egregious sexual abuse while detained at the Youth Development Center, or YDC, and other state-contracted facilities for minors. The bill now before lawmakers would also add payments for each day minors were kept in solitary confinement, and raise the payout caps for physical and emotional abuse from $150,000 to $250,000.

“We are satisfied with the result,” Mark Knights, an attorney with Nixon Peabody, which is representing a majority of the victims, told members of a Senate committee on Tuesday. “We believe that with the changes reflected in the bill, the vast majority of our clients, as you’ve heard, will choose to enter the fund.”

The proposal to boost settlement payouts comes as the state prepares for what could be the first in a string of court cases in which former YDC residents are seeking financial payments for abuse they alleged they suffered from state employees. The first court date is set for April.

The state previously allocated $100 million to compensate victims of abuse at YDC, if they agreed to forgo legal cases. In recent years, more than 1,000 victims of alleged violence and sexual misconduct at state facilities have come forward, detailing a culture of abuse carried out by employees and contractors. State prosecutors have arrested at least 11 former YDC employees, charging them with sexual assault and other crimes, and have asked any former residents of the facility to assist in documenting other allegations of abuse.

“I continue to believe that the state, as much as we should be ashamed of what happened at YDC, that we should be proud that we are making these efforts to make it right,” New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella told lawmakers Tuesday.

Formella was unable to provide lawmakers with an estimate of what the new caps could cost the state, but said it would exceed the $100 million currently set aside. Since launching the settlement process last year, the state has resolved 102 claims to date, with the average payout reaching $492,000.

In addition to raising the payout caps, the bill would also streamline the application process and extend the filing deadline by six months to June 2025.

While the changes could result in hundreds of additional settlements, lawyers for the alleged victims cautioned that an unknown number of former residents of the detention facilities may still choose to pursue civil lawsuits.

That includes David Meehan, who went public with his claims of horrific sexual and physical abuse at YDC more than three years ago. Meehan’s civil trial is scheduled to start in April.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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