Attorneys assail state’s Sununu Youth Center abuse settlement proposal
Bill in Legislature is ‘political theater,’ they say
Attorneys for the victims in the Sununu Youth Detention Center abuse lawsuit says the state’s proposed settlement agreement is “political theater.”
The Legislature is considering a bill that would offer a $100 million settling to the victims who claim there were tortured and abused as children while being held at the Sununu Youth Detention Center.
On Wednesday, attorneys David Vicinanzo of Nixon Peabody and Rus Rilee of Rilee & Associates issued a statement calling the settlement proposal as “a political move to fool the public into thinking the current political leadership actually cares about the children the state abused.”
In the statement, they said, ““The Senate is poised to vote on a bill, HB 1677, that supposedly atones for the State’s unfathomable sins. If it passes, it will do so even though Senate President (Chuck) Morse and Attorney General (John) Formella refused to meet with a single victim, who Senator Morse refers to as ‘these people.’ It therefore is unsurprising that HB 1677 is a stark departure from the mainstream, victim-friendly settlement processes we have seen work successfully for victims of church, state, and school abuse across the country in recent years.”
More than 300 men and women say they were physically or sexually abused as children by 150 staffers at the center from 1960 to 2018, according to the lawsuit. That abuse includes gang rapes, being forced to fight each other for food, and being locked in solitary confinement for weeks or months.
The state has so far charged several former employees for their roles in the alleged abuse, while at the same time it is pursuing a settlement agreement.
Vicinanzo said Wednesday the settlement agreement being proposed minimized the level of abuse the victims suffered and locks the victims into capped settlements based on the state’s own definitions of the abuse.
The Senate was scheduled to vote on the bill in Thursday’s session.
“In no other situation does the criminal get to be judge and jury of its own case and decide the sentence,” Vicinanzo said.
Morse, who is running in the GOP primary to unseat U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Formella said the proposed agreement would allow the victims to avoid a potentially traumatic lawsuit, but that victims are able to pursue greater awards through traditional lawsuits.
“We believe that a $1,500,000 cap on amounts which can be paid from this fund is appropriate and consistent with settlements in similar cases across our national sampling that has now grown to include almost 5,000 data points. We continue to believe that this bill, if passed into law, will create much needed relief for many,” Formella said.
He added that “it is important to remember when considering both the scope of this legislation and its settlement caps, that these issues in no way impact the ability of would-be claimants to bring their claims within the traditional litigation framework. And similarly, my office will retain the ability to settle those claims within the traditional settlement authority I am afforded under New Hampshire law. That is–there will still remain a remedy for victims of types of abuse not covered by this bill.”
Vicinanzo and Rilee are not the only people opposed to the bill.
Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said her organization cannot support the bill as is, as it excludes too many victims.
She said the state “miserably failed to protect vulnerable children in its care at YDC and the Sununu Center. Children in New Hampshire’s youth detention centers suffered heartbreaking and unthinkable abuse for decades. The government employees who committed these terrible acts took advantage of the youth in their care, leveraging their position of authority to cover up the extent of their abuse,” Grady Sexton said.
She added that the state “has an opportunity to set a powerful precedent through this settlement fund. Although there is no way to adequately compensate a victim for the lifelong impacts of the sexual abuse and violence they endured while in the care of the state, the state can demonstrate what it means to hold institutions accountable and show unwavering support for child victims. The bill in its current form fails to do that.”
Also criticizing the proposed settlement is Marci Hamilton, CEO of think tank CHILD USA, who called it “inhumane.:
New Hampshire is responsible for the intense suffering of hundreds of children in its own systems. These defenseless children suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse,” she said. “Yet the state wants to ignore the authentic pain that it caused many of these victims by devaluing their claims through the statute of limitations and by pretending emotional harm doesn’t count. This inhumane response by the government that caused the pain is the equivalent of kicking the can down the road. If they don’t help these victims now, they will have to in the future as they struggle to live with the burden of the trauma inflicted. On average, victims don’t come forward until they are in their 50s. New Hampshire’s SOLs are cruel and the state’s responsibility”
Formella said his office is dedicated to investigating and prosecuting all of the alleged abuse, and so far, the special team of investigators and prosecutors have brought more than 108 charges against 11 former staff members for acts committed against 20 victims.
“This criminal investigation remains active and ongoing. Hundreds of individuals have come forward and our Office is committed to investigating each person’s allegations, and to pursuing justice through the criminal process for everyone that we can. We continue to staff up for this investigation, and at this point we expect that the investigation and prosecution of these crimes will continue for years. While so many have come forward, the reality is that we do not yet know the full extent of those who may have suffered as residents at YDC, and we may not know for some time,” Formella said.
At a roundtable with reporters on Wednesday, Gov. Chris Sununu was asked about the legislation.
The governor said if the Legislature wants to change the requirements in terms of how the settlement funds are allocated, “I am all ears.”