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New Hampshire considers greatly expanding scope of settlement fund for youth center abuse victims

Feb 20, 2024, 12:50 PM

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Lawyers representing 1,400 men and woman who allege they were abused as children at New Hampshire’s youth detention centers said Tuesday they will recommend the state’s out-of-court settlement option for most of their clients if lawmakers approve a plan to greatly expand its scope.

The state faces about 1,200 lawsuits alleging physical, sexual and emotional abuse stretching back six decades at the Sununu Youth Services Center, formerly called the Youth Development Center, in Manchester. As an alternative to litigation, lawmakers established a $100 million settlement fund with a two-year application period that started in January 2023, but most alleged victims have opted to go to court instead.

A bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, would make sweeping changes to the settlement process, including adding multiple new categories of abuse. Under the current system, former center residents can make claims based on sexual assault or first- and second-degree physical assault. The bill proposes allowing claims based on a slew of other crimes, including reckless conduct, criminal threatening, child endangerment, solitary confinement, unlawful strip-search and intentional inflection of emotional distress.

The bill was the result of intense and at times contentious negotiations between the attorney general’s office and lawyers for the victims, both sides acknowledged Tuesday. Supporters called it a compromise that will better serve victims while possibly protecting the state from astronomical jury awards.

“As much as we should be ashamed of what happened at YDC we should be proud that we’re making these efforts to make it right,” Attorney General John Formella told the committee.

The scandal came to light in 2019 after two former workers were charged with abusing David Meehan, a former resident who filed the first lawsuit in 2020 and has gone public with his story. Eleven former workers are now facing criminal charges, with both the first criminal trial and the first civil trial scheduled for April.

Meehan, whose civil case will be heard first, and hundreds of others plan to continue their litigation, said Attorney Rus Rilee, who together with the Nixon Peabody law firm represents 1,400 former residents who allege abuse between 1960 and 2019, about 1,200 of whom have filed lawsuits.

“While this bill isn’t perfect, it is certainly an improvement on the current fund, and we believe it will be a good option for the vast majority of our clients which we will encourage them to explore,” Rilee said in a text message.

Some of his clients say they were gang raped, beaten while being raped and forced to sexually abuse each other. Staff members also are accused of choking children, beating them unconscious, burning them with cigarettes and breaking their bones.

Under the current settlement fund, victims of sexual assault are eligible for up to $1.5 million, while payments for physical abuse are limited to $150,000. Under the new proposal, victims of “egregious sexual abuse” would be eligible for up to $2.5 million, victims of non-sexual abuse could get up to $250,000 and those claiming solitary confinement could get up to $100,000. The filing period for claims would be extended by six months to June 30, 2025.

While the changes would almost certainly result in total payouts exceeding the current $100 million, the bill also calls for allowing the fund’s administrator to require settlements to be paid in yearly increments instead of lump sums. So far, 307 claims have been filed and 102 have been settled, with an average award of $492,000, Formella said.

One of the current claimants, Brett Malcolm, sent the committee a letter in which he described the process as a “nightmare.” At one point, a representative from the attorney general’s office questioned whether he was eligible because his alleged abuse happened not at the detention center but at a state-run residential facility for children with educational and behavioral problems.

“Because I was a kid with emotional challenges, instead of a kid who committed a crime, what happened to me doesn’t matter? Hearing that was incredibly frustrating,” he wrote. “It made me feel like the State didn’t care about what happened to me, which is exactly how I felt when I was a kid being beaten and raped. The settlement fund experience made me feel like a victim again.”

Malcolm, who like Meehan has been public about his experiences, urged the committee to support the bill.

“Revisiting these memories is not easy for any of the victims, and we want to believe the settlement fund process is on our side,” he wrote. “That’s what the proposed changes will do.”

While only 11 former youth center workers have been arrested, an Associated Press analysis of more than 1,000 lawsuits filed by former residents found hundreds of cases still eligible for possible prosecution. Formella’s office has declined to say whether more charges are coming but says the investigation remains active.

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New Hampshire considers greatly expanding scope of settlement fund for youth center abuse victims