Proposed Settlement Fund for Sexual Abuse Victims of Youth Centers | New Policies

By HOLLY RAMER, Associated Press

CONCORD, NH (AP) — New Hampshire would create a $100 million fund to settle claims of child sexual abuse at its state-run youth detention center under a bipartisan bill that victims’ lawyers say is offensive.

Ten former workers from Manchester’s Youth Development Center and one from a remand center in Concord were charged in April with sexually assaulting or being complicit in the assault of more than a dozen teenagers from 1994 to 2007. The center, now called Sununu Youth Services Center, has been under criminal investigation since 2019, and more than 400 men and women filed complaints against 150 staff members from 1960 to 2018.

Victims have filed about 350 nearly identical lawsuits against the state since a judge dismissed a class action lawsuit in May, and another 100 are expected to be filed by Thursday, when a House committee holds a public hearing into a a late-drafted bill that would create another way to meet their demands. One of the bill’s sponsors said the attorney general’s office requested the legislation “as a way to help some of the victims get a faster outcome with less trauma.”

“I think this is going to really help some people move on and not go through the trauma of the courtroom,” Rep. Kimberly Rice, R-Hudson, said.

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Under the proposal, those held at the center from 1980 would have a year to file complaints, starting in October. Participants would waive the right to seek compensation in court. Individual claims would be capped at $1.5 million and could be paid over a period of up to 10 years.

While the bill earmarks $100 million, the fund administrator could seek additional funds from the Legislative Assembly if a shortfall is likely to occur.

Attorney Rus Rilee called the bill tone-deaf, but said he hoped lawmakers would work with the survivor community to develop a fair and trauma-informed process. As it stands, the proposal requires victims to waive their legal rights without any guarantees that the state will fairly compensate them for their suffering, he said.

“This version of the bill is offensive to the hundreds of brave survivors of decades of systemic government child abuse who have come forward to tell their stories,” he said Monday.

Until recently, Rilee represented almost all of the alleged victims. He has since partnered with Nixon Peabody, an international law firm with over 600 lawyers. One of them, David Vicinanzo, said on Tuesday that if the settlement fund is enacted, the state must exercise caution with victims who have very little reason to trust the state given that they were abused by it.

“They have a tough climb to regain that trust, and that trust will have to be earned,” said Vicinanzo, who previously served as a federal prosecutor, including as New Hampshire’s top assistant U.S. attorney. He and five other lawyers from his firm signed up for the youth center business.

“There is no greater honor than being trusted to seek justice for those who were abused and neglected as children by our society and our government, and who have no reason to trust anyone. Either,” he said.

Another sponsor of the legislation, Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro, said it shows the state is taking responsibility for abuses. Representative Patrick Long, a Democrat from Manchester, agreed.

“It’s absolutely a disgrace to the state,” he said. “I am convinced that we should accept what they say, compensate those who want to be compensated and ensure that this never happens again.”

The Manchester facility accommodates children placed in a secure facility by the juvenile justice system. Although it once housed more than 100 young people, the typical population is now around a dozen teenagers, and the current state budget plans to replace it with a much smaller facility in 2023.

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