The state of New Hampshire has agreed to pay $6.75 million to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of two young sisters who were sexually abused by their biological parents while in foster care.
The girls' grandparents sued the Division for Children, Youth and Families in 2016, alleging the parents were allowed to have unsupervised visits with the girls in 2013, even though police were investigating reports they had molested other children at a homeless shelter.
The parents are serving 25 years to life in prison after pleading guilty to child pornography and sexually abusing the girls, then 18 months old and 4 years old.
Attorney Rus Rilee represents the grandparents, who have adopted the girls and will get $500,000 of the settlement. He said Thursday he's glad the girls, now 5 and 8, will be able to afford the help they need to recover.
"Every day's a struggle for them," Rilee said. "I'm very happy with the outcome because it means these girls can finally get the medical treatment they desperately need and a chance at a normal life."
According to the lawsuit, the couple videotaped more than a dozen incidents in which the girls were assaulted, including one in which the older girl's mouth was covered with duct tape and her hands bound behind her back. After one visit in November 2013, the girls' grandmother saw the younger girl rubbing a paintbrush against her genitals and when asked what she was doing answered, "Mommy and Daddy do it — no they don't, don't tell, I'll get in trouble!" The grandparents immediately went to police, and the parents were arrested about 10 days later.
That visit came two months after Claremont police notified the Division for Children, Youth and Families that several children at a homeless center reported the girls' father had molested them, the lawsuit states.
"We thought it was important to settle these cases to provide care and treatment for these young girls that will hopefully help them move into adulthood in a healthy way," Associate Attorney General Anne Edward said.
Rilee said his clients had two goals: To make sure no other family goes through what they experienced and "to lift the veil of secrecy over these proceedings such that errors made by child protection agencies can be exposed to the light of public courtrooms." He said because of rulings in the case, others will be able to file court cases in public to challenge DCYF.
"I think we're starting to see that happen in the system," he said.
The head of the state agency that oversees the child protection division said the state pursued the settlement to ensure that children who endured "unspeakable sexual abuse" are able to access needed care. Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers said the state is engaged in a broad transformation of DCYF to ensure abuse of any kind is not suffered by other children. The child protection division has been under scrutiny since two toddlers under its supervision were killed in 2014 and 2015.
"New leadership, additional resources, and revised policies and procedures are among the changes that have already been made to reform DCYF," Meyers said in a statement. "The DCYF staff work hard every day to protect children from abuse and neglect."
—Holly Ramer, Associated Press