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First civil trial in the YDC abuse scandal: What you need to know

Rockingham County Superior Court in Brentwood, New Hampshire. Dan Tuohy photo / NHPR.org
Dan Tuohy
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NHPR
Rockingham County Superior Court in Brentwood, New Hampshire.

To hear Jason Moon discuss the trial with Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley, click the play button above.


The first civil trial stemming from a wave of lawsuits alleging child abuse at New Hampshire’s state-run juvenile jail got underway on April 8 in Rockingham County Superior Court.

More than four years ago, David Meehan filed suit against the state over allegations of abuse at the former Youth Development Center or YDC (now known as the Sununu Youth Services Center). Meehan’s complaint unleashed a flood of other lawsuits.

Now, more than 1,100 people have sued the state, alleging they were abused by staff at YDC and other state-contracted facilities for minors going back nearly six decades. The allegations range from severe physical and psychological abuse, including beatings and prolonged periods of isolation, to sexual assault.

The civil trial could result in millions of dollars in damages for Meehan and may provide clues about how the remaining YDC lawsuits will play out.

Here’s a refresher on the case, what’s at stake in this trial, and where it fits into the larger YDC child abuse scandal.

Meehan: NH’s neglect enabled horrific abuse at YDC

In January 2020, David Meehan filed a civil lawsuit against the state of New Hampshire for allegedly failing to protect him from severe physical, sexual, and psychological abuse that he says he suffered at the hands of YDC staff in the 1990s.

He alleges that while the state detained him at YDC between the ages of 14 and 18, staff raped him hundreds of times, beat him, and held him in solitary confinement for months. He also alleges he told at least two staffers about the abuse, but wasn’t believed.

Meehan claims the state health department, which oversees juvenile justice services, enabled this child abuse by failing in its responsibility to care for children in its custody — and for failing to take reasonable steps in the hiring, training, and supervising of YDC staff.

Meehan is represented by Rus Rilee of Rilee & Associates and David Vicinanzo of Nixon Peabody. Their witness list for the trial includes former YDC detainees and staff who allegedly witnessed or reported abuse, as well as administrators who oversaw the facility.

FILE - David Meehan, center, the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit accusing the State of New Hampshire of covering up decades of sexual, physical and emotional abuse at its youth detention center, poses with two other victims who did not want to be identified, at his lawyer's office on Feb. 18, 2021, in Portsmouth, N.H. Meehan's allegations of physical and sexual abuse at New Hampshire's youth detention center have led to 11 arrests and more than 1,100 lawsuits. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
Charles Krupa/AP
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AP
FILE - David Meehan, center, the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit accusing the State of New Hampshire of covering up decades of sexual, physical and emotional abuse at its youth detention center, poses with two other victims who did not want to be identified, at his lawyer's office on Feb. 18, 2021, in Portsmouth, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

The state, represented by the New Hampshire Department of Justice, denies it was negligent and claims it is not liable for the criminal conduct of “rogue” YDC employees. The state denies that anyone beyond the individuals who allegedly harmed Meehan had knowledge of the abuse.

The state also argues Meehan’s case was filed outside of a three-year statute of limitations for claims against state agencies. According to Meehan’s attorneys, it did not occur to Meehan that people in positions of power at YDC bore responsibility for his abuse until 2017, when he first spoke to law enforcement.

Based on these positions, the trial could hinge on what management at YDC knew — or what a jury believes they should have known — in the 1990s about the possibility of ongoing abuse.

After a superior court judge rejected a proposed class action lawsuit over alleged abuse at YDC, the parties agreed to attempt to schedule the remaining trials in batches, where a handful of plaintiffs will make their cases simultaneously. The next trial is scheduled for this fall.

The AG’s office is criminally prosecuting the same YDC staff Meehan accuses of abuse

Before David Meehan sued the state, he shared his allegations of abuse with police in 2017. The state launched a criminal investigation. By 2019, the attorney general’s office announced it was creating a task force to conduct a “comprehensive, multi-faceted investigation of the YDC.”

The task force’s investigation has led to the arrest of 11 former state employees so far, several of whom are accused of abuse by Meehan in his civil lawsuit. All have pled not guilty to charges of sexual assault. The first of those criminal trials is currently scheduled for this summer.

Read more of NHPR's YDC coverage here.

The attorney general's office will likely rely on Meehan’s testimony in the upcoming criminal trials of certain former YDC staff. And yet, in this civil trial, the attorney general's office may well attempt to undermine Meehan’s credibility during cross-examination.

Some alleged YDC victims and their attorneys have described the AG’s dual roles as a conflict of interest. The state insists there is a firewall between the criminal and civil divisions of the AG’s office.

The awkward arrangement is likely to come up during the trial. Investigators with the attorney general’s own YDC task force are among the witnesses Meehan’s attorneys have signaled they could call to the stand.

Money award for Meehan could influence over 1,100 other cases

Meehan, now in his 40s, is seeking monetary damages to compensate him for the harm he says he’s suffered over a lifetime from the alleged abuse at YDC. According to his attorneys, that includes physical injuries, as well as psychological and emotional harm that leaves him unable to work.

The state has signaled it will argue Meehan’s injuries and inability to work are not the result of the alleged abuse at YDC.

Meehan’s attorneys are asking for between $2 and $2.5 million in lost income and economic damages. They’re also seeking damages related to pain and suffering. Those amounts will be determined by the jury if Meehan wins the case.

The state has suggested it may attempt to cap any damages at $475,000, citing a state law that limits its liability to that amount for “any single incident.” Meehan’s attorneys argue that each time he was abused by YDC staff counts as a separate incident.

Any damages awarded in this case will come as state lawmakers consider increasing the payouts currently offered through the state’s YDC Settlement Fund, which was created in 2022 as a way to entice alleged victims to settle out of court.

The $100 million settlement fund promises quicker resolution and a more trauma-informed process than a civil trial, although critics have charged that the payouts, which are currently capped at $1.5 million, are lower than what a jury would award in some cases. A proposal now before the state House would raise the cap to $2.5 million and allow for claims based on additional categories of abuse.

If Meehan is awarded damages well above or well below the settlement fund cap, it could influence other alleged YDC victims in deciding whether to sue and have their day in court, or file a claim with the settlement fund. By the end of 2023, 78 claims had been resolved through the settlement fund for $36 million. Another 177 claims were pending.

Abuse allegations surface at out-of-state facility, as plans for a new NH youth detention center inch forward

The allegations in the more than 1,100 civil lawsuits filed so far span from 1960 to as recently as 2019, and include accusations against staff at YDC and more than 50 other state-contracted facilities.

More recently, concerns have continued to surface over the treatment of New Hampshire youth sent to out-of-state residential facilities. Last summer, the New Hampshire Office of the Child Advocate raised alarms about allegations of abuse at Bledsoe Youth Academy, a residential facility in Tennessee where the state had placed two teenagers from New Hampshire.

In a public report, the child advocate’s office described staff at Bledsoe allegedly encouraging kids to fight each other, dressing them in prison-style jumpsuits as a form of punishment, giving kids rug burns from aggressively restraining them face-down on the floor — which is prohibited under New Hampshire law – and otherwise creating a “culture of fear and humiliation.”

Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, NH. Dan Tuohy photo.
Dan Tuohy
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NHPR
Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, NH. Dan Tuohy photo.

The state Division of Children, Youth and Families returned the kids to New Hampshire the following month. State lawmakers are now considering legislation to tighten its oversight of out-of-state residential programs and require monthly visits from case workers.

Meanwhile, plans for a new youth detention center in New Hampshire are moving forward, after years of debate and delay.

In 2021, lawmakers voted to close the Sununu Youth Services Center within two years, but then failed to reach agreement on how to replace it. Last year, the Legislature pushed that deadline back until the state can open a new, much smaller secure youth center. The legislation calls for the new facility to have no more than 18 beds and a more therapeutic, “home-like” feel.

The Department of Health and Human Services plans to locate it on the grounds of Hampstead Hospital, a state-owned psychiatric hospital for children and youth. Officials say they expect the new youth center to open in the second quarter of 2026.

NHPR’s Paul Cuno-Booth and Todd Bookman contributed reporting.


Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the trial is underway.

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Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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