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Lawyers say NH agency enabled YDC’s ‘corrupt and violent culture,’ as civil trial begins

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

A negligent state agency that enabled and then covered up child abuse – or a group of “rogue” employees who allegedly acted in secret to harm children. Those were the two narratives presented to jurors on Tuesday during opening statements of the first civil trial in the child abuse scandal at New Hampshire’s juvenile jail.

The plaintiff, David Meehan, claims that while the state detained him at the former Youth Development Center (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 claims the state health department enabled this child abuse through a mix of negligence and disregard for the wellbeing of children in its custody.

One of Meehan’s attorneys, David Vicinanzo, told jurors in his opening statement that Meehan was “reduced to the status of a child sex slave and a punching bag at YDC, in the care – ‘care’ – of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.”

Vicinanzo told the jurors the evidence will show the abuse Meehan suffered was directly caused by a “corrupt and violent culture” at YDC and the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees YDC.

“You’ve heard the expression, ‘the direction or the tone comes from the top?’” Vicinanzo asked the jurors, rhetorically. “Another expression is ‘the fish rots from the head.’”

In the state’s opening statement, Assistant Attorney General Brandon Chase did not take a position on whether the abuse Meehan alleges actually occurred.

“If anyone committed those crimes, those individual perpetrators need to be punished,” said Chase.

Instead, he told jurors if they decide the abuse did occur, they should then focus on who bears the ultimate responsibility.

“You have to decide whether the Department of Health and Human Services is actually liable. Or were the terrible acts that you heard and will hear, were they the responsibility or the result of this small group of rogue employees who acted in secret for their own purpose?” said Chase. “Did the department know?”

The empty jury box in the Rockingham Superior courtroom where the first civil trial in the YDC child abuse scandal is taking place.
Jason Moon/NHPR
The jury box in the Rockingham Superior courtroom where the first civil trial in the YDC child abuse scandal is taking place.

Chase also reminded the jurors that the Department of Health and Human Services is the only defendant in the case before them.

“The people that Mr. Meehan says abused him are not here. We do not represent them,” said Chase.

Chase also previewed another element of the state’s defense: that Meehan filed his lawsuit outside of a three-year statute of limitations. He said those time limits exist because witnesses die and memories fade or become distorted. “After too much time passes, it can be very difficult to find the truth,” he said.

Following opening statements Tuesday morning, jurors boarded a bus to visit the campus of the former YDC, which was renamed the Sununu Youth Services Center in 2006. Meehan’s attorneys requested the view so the jury could see where the alleged abuse took place. The judge barred reporters from following the tour.

The trial is expected to last several weeks. Read NHPR’s explainer on the case here.

Meehan’s lawsuit, filed in 2020, was followed by a flood of similar allegations. To date, 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.

Meehan’s case is the first to go to trial.

Several of the former YDC staff Meehan has accused of abuse have been criminally charged by the attorney general’s office’s criminal division. The fact that the AG’s civil division is also defending against Meehan’s lawsuit has given rise to claims from alleged YDC victims of a conflict of interest.

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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 signaled in its opening statement they 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.

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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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