Proposed YDC settlement process unfair to alleged victims, attorneys say; state disappointed in attorneys’ stance

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Screenshot 2022 05 29 12.30.24 PM
Sununu Youth Services Center. File Photo

MANCHESTER, NH – The attorneys representing hundreds of alleged victims of sexual and/or physical abuse by employees at the former Youth Development Center (YDC), the state-run juvenile detention center, are accusing the state of “setting a trap for financially insecure victims” in settling the cases.

The Legislature approved $100 million to settle the cases and avoid lengthy litigation but plaintiff’s attorneys, Rus Rilee and David Vicinanzo, in a letter sent to Attorney General Formella on June 22 [see below], say the process requires claimants to run the “gauntlet of an intimidating and painful process, subjecting them to recorded interrogation under oath and the express threat of criminal prosecution, only after giving away rights and foreclosing litigation.  Starting with the application, the process screams that it will confront victims at every opportunity, force victims to prove minute details from traumatic events long ago, and force victims to split hairs that cannot be seen.”

So far, about 450 people have filed lawsuits against the state alleging employees at the state-run Youth Development Center in Manchester, now known as the John H. Sununu Youth Services Center (named for Gov. Chris Sununu’s father), physically and sexually abuse them.  The allegations involve more than 150 employees dating from 1963 to 2018.  Vicinanzo said he expects another 150 lawsuits to be filed.

The state opened an investigation into the facility in 2019.  So far, 11 people were arrested, 10 who worked at the YDC and one who worked at a juvenile detention facility in Concord.  

Vicinanzo stressed that the administrative process proposed by the state requires a victim to forfeit their judicial rights before entering this process and is “designed to save the state money. So, the victim has to give up their only leverage before knowing if they will get a fair award, or any award at all.  The state could just say, ‘You’re time-barred, or we don’t believe you, too bad! No money for you’. That’s called a trap. The state has acted in an untrustworthy way toward these victims for decades. Why would we trust it now?” 

Michael S. Garrity, director of communication & legislative affairs for the state Department of Justice, in an email responding to a request for comment, said the state is extremely disappointed in the letter.

“We have worked hard to develop first drafts of a claims process and guidelines, and we are hoping to have collaborative and constructive discussions with claimants’ counsel to continue to improve the process. The letter sent by Attorneys Rilee and Vicinanzo appears to be designed to score points in the press and not designed to provide substantive feedback and further the efforts to help victims.

“The Attorney General’s Office is currently in the draft stage of developing a claims process and guidelines and desires to work with claimants’ counsel in an effort to develop agreement on that process, to the greatest extent possible.  The Office has reached out to all members of the New Hampshire State Bar, invited them to participate, and asked for any comments they wished to share regarding the current draft as we work to finalize the process. We are continuing to take in this feedback and work to revise the draft process and guidelines accordingly.

“Our ultimate goal is a process that helps victims. We would stress that YDC victims who file a lawsuit can also file a claim in this process. If a victim does not agree with an offer, they have options. They can: negotiate for a higher amount; ask the settlement administrator to choose an amount that resolves the difference; or withdraw their claim and resume their court case. (See, H.B. 1677, signed by the Governor on May 27, 2022, enacting RSA 21-M:11-a.)

“Extensive research of verdicts and settlements in comparable cases nationwide shows an average per claimant value across all cases of approximately $750,000 per claimant. This research was based on a national survey covering almost 5,000 claimants.”

Rilee and Vicinanzo, however, contend the process requires a victim abused by the state to waive all their rights before they have any guarantee that they will be given a fair award, or any award.

“No rational victim would do this, especially victims who already distrust the state which has systematically abused them for decades.  By creating this cruel condition the state reveals to its victims and to the public that it remains defensive, not remorseful, and that its primary motivation is to protect itself through the minimization of wrongful conduct.  The victims of abuse at the hands of the state can smell the manipulation a mile away.”

They also say the amounts the state proposes to settle individual cases “are absurdly low.”  

“Inexplicably, the guidelines imagine that a fair compensation for a child who can prove, 30 to 40 or more years after the fact, that he or she was the victim of anal or genital rape (i.e., sexual penetration of the anus or genital openings) is only $200,000,” they wrote.  “The proposed amount with respect to physical abuse resulting in permanent or life-threatening bodily injury is only $50,000.  By any measure, these amounts are insultingly low and seemingly driven by the state’s desire to resolve as many claims as possible under the caps, not by any sense of fairness or decency.”

Vicinanzo said the attorney general says, by its own calculation, that the national average on these cases is $726,000. 

“We disagree, saying it’s approximately $1.44 million.  But regardless of that disparity, how can the AG on the one hand say the average is $726,000, but set these values so artificially low?” he said. 

Rilee and Vicinanzo attached a national survey of verdicts and settlements in child abuse cases which covered cases dating back to 1999 in both state-run and private facilities across the country.  That totaled 2,041 cases with a payout, when adjusted for inflation, of more than $3.06 billion or $1.5 million per claimant.

The survey is also broken down into two sets involving state-run youth detention facilities.  The first, with 98 groups of youth claimants covering seven lawsuits dating from 2007 to 2021, averaged $258,231.72 per claimant.  A second set, involving eight individual claimants in cases from 1982 to 2020, averaged $317,660.25.

Last week, the state released draft documents that outlined the proposed claims process, the claim form itself and worksheets to calculate individual awards.

The base awards range from $25,000 to $200,000, for five categories of sexual assault:  anal or genital rape (sexual penetration of the anus or genital openings, $200,000; oral rape (fellatio, cunnilingus, sexual penetration of the mouth) $150,000; intimate sexual touching (masturbation), $100,000; other touching (groping) $50,000; conduct creating a reasonable apprehension of sexual touching or sexual penetration (indecent exposure, lewdness, violations of privacy), $25,000.

Those awards would increase based on the frequency of abuse and other aggravating factors including abuse resulting in pregnancy (which would be increased by $200,000); abuse resulting in the contraction of a sexually transmitted disease (a $100,000 increase); abuse perpetrated by multiple people or abuse that continued for more than two years.

Any person with information regarding criminal conduct at the YDC is urged to contact the N.H. Attorney General’s Task Force hotline at 603-271-4000.

Below: A copy of the letter sent to the NH Attorney General; the Valuation Guide; and the Claims Worksheet.

About this Author

Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.