CONCORD, NH – Attorneys representing more than 500 people who say they were sexually and/or physically abused as children by employees of the state’s former Youth Development Center, along with two advocacy groups, are speaking out against the state’s proposed $100 million settlement fund.
Attorneys Rus Rilee and David Vicinanzo, in a statement issued Wednesday, said a few changes to HB 1677 would make it “truly victim-friendly and a success.”
Without the amendments, they said the process is “nothing but a trap for the unwary, seeking to take advantage of the child victims again. Survivors of child abuse will not be duped by this political theater. The public shouldn’t be either.”
Backing them up are the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and CHILD USA, a national children’s advocacy group.
Under the current version of HB1677, some groups of victims who experienced egregious acts of sexual violence are purposely prohibited from participating in the settlement process, including children who were forced to view pornographic materials, children who were subjected to acts of indecent exposure, and children who were filmed while being sexually abused, according to the coalition.
NHCAFSV said it is critical that the definition of abuse be expanded so that any child who was sexually abused at YDC is eligible to participate in the settlement. The group said it opposes the bill as written and “we cannot recommend that victims use this process unless the bill is amended.”
CHILD USA called the bill, which is to be voted on by the full Senate on Thursday, May 5, 2022, a “cruel decision” by the state that ignores the science of childhood sexual abuse and leaves victims without a proper chance to seek the justice they deserve.
It also said the bill lacks both a “trauma-informed and victim-centered approach, further contributing to suffering of those the bill claims to protect.”
Additionally, it said the proposed fund is far too limited in scope given the documented impact of sexual trauma on children, proposes an arbitrary cap on claims that undermines the bill’s intent, and fails to put victims first.
The bill limits pay-outs to $1.5 million for sexual abuse and $150,000 for physical abuse and excludes emotional abuse. Anyone who agrees to the settlement could not proceed to court, even those who end up getting nothing.
Vicinanzo said the abuse at the state-run facility dates back nearly six decades. He estimates that 150 employees over those years abused children in their care and said one generation of guards trained the next generation of workers, resulting in the continuous abuse. Eleven former employees have been charged criminally in the alleged assaults of a total of 20 children.
“It’s hard to fathom how bad this can be,” he said. “It really was a place of breeding violence. They had people working there for a long time and they would teach the next generation of guards. It got very sadistic after a while.”
Kids, he said, were raped, sodomized, beaten, held in isolation “tortured worse than prisoners of war. That abuse persisted for years because no one would listen to their cries for help.”
He said kids as young as 11 or 12 were placed there. Some children were locked up for skipping school or running away from home. Many came from dysfunctional homes and had no one to advocate for them.
It is difficult to get people to “appreciate the whole horror of what happened here,” said Vicinanzo, the father of 11, 10 sons and one daughter. About 10 years ago, he and his wife were foster parents. He said they did that because social workers told them the child would otherwise be sent to YDC which they described as a horrible place.
He said $100 million seems like a lot of money “but some of these kids were raped over 100 times. A rape may be worth $1 million but what’s 100 rapes worth at age 15 or 14? Some of these cases could be way into the tens of millions.”
Vicinanzo said nationally, the settlement for these types of cases are in the seven figures. Settlements with the Roman Catholic Church in Chicago and California averaged about $1.7 or $1.8 million, he said.
The bill being proposed, he and Rilee said, allows the state to decide unilaterally what “the harm it inflicted on its victims is worth, with the actual victims having no vote in the decision. In no other situation does the criminal get to be judge and jury of its own case and decide the sentence.”
Vicinanzo said the bill also narrows the definition of “harm” to pay little or nothing, and to also exclude a huge percentage of abuse from any coverage at all.
Vicinanzo said children who were locked up in solitary confinement, some for more than a year, would not be compensated for the abuse. And, he said, the bill doesn’t allow for emotional abuse.
One such case that would be barred from the settlement is that of a 15-year-old boy who was adopted. His parents decided they made a mistake and turned him over to the state which promptly placed him in the YDC. At the time he was admitted, Vicinanzo said, he was highly distraught and suicidal.
The boy was placed in a cell. “What happened is the guards know he’s suicidal and they’re going by his cell saying, ‘Hey when are you going to do it?,” and “Hey, you’re a chicken,’ egging him on to commit suicide. Eventually, he attempts to do it. That type of horrible emotional abuse is not covered,” Vicinanzo said.
Mental and verbal abuse at the YDC was very common, he said. “These are a bunch of sadistic people who got into these places,” he said.
He said the definition of sexual abuse in the bill also is quite narrow with a lot of loopholes in it. “It’s designed to cut out as many people as possible,” he said. “They’re limiting it to as few people as possible and paying as little as possible. That’s what their priority is.”
He said he honestly believes state Senator Chuck Morse and New Hampshire Attorney General are playing a “political game. They are adopting a political posture saying, ‘OK, we took care of this. It’s all done so we can move on.’ The reality is they are not actually respecting the victims.”
Vicinanzo said a “bunch” of his clients tried to speak with Morse. His answer, Vicinanzo said, was “quote, unquote, ‘not interested.’”
A message left for Morse for a comment was not returned,
If the bill is passed without changes, Vicinanzo will recommend to his clients that they go to court. Presently, he said, the attorneys are readying for litigation.
Formella has said he believes the bill’s existing caps are an appropriate balance of the state’s obligation to victims and his office’s obligation to use taxpayer dollars mindfully.
Michael Garrity, spokesman for the NH Department of Justice, has said the caps are based on extensive verdicts and settlements reached nationally involving 5,000 people.
Gov. Chris Sununu, who backs the legislation, has said he believes it strikes the right balance in dedicating a historic amount of money – $100 million – to help the “victims of this tragedy.”