CONCORD, NH – Gov. Chris Sununu on Friday signed into law House Bill 1677, which creates a claims process for victims of abuse in the state-operated Youth Development Center, formerly known as the John H. Sununu Youth Services Center, located on River Road in Manchester.
- Establishes a procedure for the administration and resolution of claims of abuse that may have occurred at the youth development center.
- Creates the youth development center (YDC) settlement fund and makes an appropriation to the fund for the settlement of founded abuse claims.
- Creates an exemption from the right-to-know law for all records related to the administration and settlement of abuse claims at the youth development center.
A statement released Friday by NH Attorney General John Formella called the signing of the bill a “significant” historical moment because it creates an avenue for resolution and compensation he referred to as “victim-centered,” as it is an alternative to litigation.
“The signing of HB 1677 into law today represents a significant moment in New Hampshire history, as it creates an important and unprecedented avenue for relief to help abuse survivors,” Formella said. “Hundreds of former residents of our State’s former Youth Development Center have come forward with claims of abuse, and the traditional litigation process can be an incredibly challenging, even re-traumatizing process. This new law creates a claims resolution process that provides a trauma-informed and victim-centered alternative to traditional litigation. No victim is required to use this process, but it is my hope that this bill will provide an avenue for much-needed healing and compensation for many of these victims.”
Reaction to the bill from attorneys Rus Rilee and David Vicinanzo was swift, as the two, who are representing nearly all 600 victims who have come forward so far, called the bill “deceptive” and one that protects the state’s interests above those of the victims.
“The victims know this bill is not victim-friendly and is intended to benefit the state more than them. We will continue to fight every day to change the way the state treats its vulnerable children, and for true justice for the many hundreds of kids grievously harmed by sexual, physical, and emotional abuse over decades at the hands of the state.
“In a sure sign that the state is not proud of this deceptive bill, it was signed at 5 p.m. on the Friday of a holiday weekend. If it was a good bill, it would have been signed at a press conference when the press was not on holiday.”
In a follow-up conversation, Rilee also noted that senate leadership refused to meet with a single survivor.
“The state abused these kids, and now the state is dictating what their abuse is worth without talking to them? This is revictimizing and retraumatizing to every survivor and should be seen for what it is – yet another attempt to silence the survivors. It’s shameful,” Rilee said.
One criticism of the bill from both Rilee and Vicinanzo has been that the proposed fund is 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.
Amendments to the bill proposed by Sen. Lou D’Allessandro, D-Manchester, on May 4 included language that would have increased the pay-out limits to $2 million and $200,000, among other provisions. It was rejected by a vote of 14-10.
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 7 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.
In order to pay for the administration and settlement of claims, the bill makes a non-lapsing appropriation of $100 million for the biennium ending June 30, 2023, to come from the revenue stabilization reserve account, also known as the “rainy day fund.”
Other groups that have been critical of the limited scope of HB1677 include NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and CHILD USA, a national children’s advocacy group.
The bill calls for hiring a claims administrator position within the judicial branch to be paid approximately $165,000.
Although all administration of settlements will go through the judicial branch the anticipated need for investigation and resolution of potentially hundreds of claims, the Department of Health and Human Services anticipates additional DCYF staff time to participate in investigations, produce electronic and paper records and prepare for and participate in interviews and hearings.
DHHS assumes that this process will result in the need for additional staff, which will be determined by the number of former youth who file claims and the complexity of the claims.