New Hampshire must face allegations of covering up youth center abuse.
Merrimack Superior Court, New Hampshire, Judge Andrew Schulman, appointed by Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, approved the moving forward of hundreds of Sununu Youth Services Center abuse cases, seeking to sue the state over what plaintiffs call “decades of coverup by state leaders.” Schulman lifted the stay initiated after a potential settlement which had not reached. The $100 million offer approved by the legislature has been deemed inadequate given how many incidents were involved at what was formerly the Youth Development Center (YDC). This leaves New Hampshire forced to defend itself against 700 allegations.
David Vicinanzo, one of the attorneys for the survivors, said there are 450 survivors’ part of the now consolidated lawsuit, and hundreds more are expected to join. Schulman’s order means the case will move to discovery.
“Judge Schulman did what we had requested – consolidate all YDC and state youth facility cases and include all ancillary state contractor cases. And he’s directing the state to commence discovery immediately, and motions to start in 60 days. We will have monthly status conferences and after a few months of discovery and other education, we will work with the court to develop a consolidation plan for joint trials,” Vicinanzo said.
The new Sununu complaint states that officials knew about the prevalence of abuse at the center and, instead of taking action to correct what was happening, officials chose to cover these up. The allegations include sexual abuse, as well as “physical violence, torture, excessive use of force, excessive use of solitary confinement and physical restraints, mental abuse,” and even claims that children were forced into coprophagia (eating feces) by members of the staff, court records show.
In the 1980s, Attorney General (AG) Thomas Rath called out the abuse and a federal investigation into the state’s scandal ensued. Child advocacy groups were threatening to sue at the time, according to the lawsuit, but state leaders remained indifferent to these threats.
“Illustrating the state government’s cavalier attitude toward the treatment of the juveniles entrusted to its care, then-Governor John Sununu accused those groups of ‘grandstanding,’” the lawsuit states.
The master complaint calls out former New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice Charles Douglas for his actions the plaintiffs contend allowed the abuse to continue for years. It states, “In (the Supreme Court case) John M., for instance, Justice Douglas, writing for the majority, approved placing abused and neglected children together with those adjudicated of criminal activity, despite compelling expert opinion disfavoring such practices as detrimental to the best interests of children. The decision, which followed a result-driven path based on monetary concerns, was premised on the desire to house the state’s inconvenient ‘problem children’ as cheaply as possible.”
He also allegedly ruled that a young girl who had been raped at the center could be incarcerated for choosing not to name her abuser.
“In that case, a 13-year-old girl was impregnated. When the girl declined to identify the father, the lower court held her in contempt and locked her up at YDC. Justice Douglas, again writing the opinion for the Court, concluded that there was no reason to treat a pregnant 13-year-old victim of rape differently from an adult for contempt purposes, and accordingly approved her indefinite detention,” according to the suit.
In another case, a known abuser was able to keep his job at the center, even despite being criminally convicted. The lawsuit explains, “Wesley Oates was accused of engaging in sexual misconduct with an adult female victim. The allegation was deemed credible by police, resulted in a temporary order of protection issued against Mr. Oates, and was later reported to the YDC administration in 1999. Despite a misdemeanor conviction arising from the criminal conduct, which was reported to a supervisor at YDC in 2000, YDC continued to employ Oates for another 20 years, during which he committed multiple acts of physical, sexual, and emotional violence against numerous child victims at the YDC and the YDSU.”
There are a wealth of other Sununu Center claims that will be presented at court in the case against the state.