Fund urged for sex abuse victims at youth detention center

FILE — The Sununu Youth Services Center, in Manchester, N.H., stands among trees, Jan. 28, 2020. New Hampshire would create a $100 million fund to settle claims of child sex abuse at the state's youth detention center under a bipartisan bill that lawyers for the victims call offensive. The bill, which is to be heard by a House committee Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, would create an alternative way to address their claims. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella told lawmakers Thursday that spending $100 million to settle sexual abuse claims at the state's youth detention center is the right thing to do.

The House Finance Committee held a public hearing on a bipartisan bill that would create a fund to compensate people who were abused as children at the Sununu Youth Services Center, formerly the Youth Development Center.

The Manchester center has been the target of a criminal investigation since 2019, and 11 former workers were arrested in April. Nearly 450 former residents sued the state, with allegations involving more than 150 staffers from 1963 to 2018.

Formella, whose office is both defending the state against the lawsuits and prosecuting former workers, told the committee that creating a settlement fund would promote healing.

“It’s the right thing for victims, who should have an alternative option that provides for faster and gentler resolution than the traditional litigation process,” he said. “And I firmly believe it’s the right thing for the state. Not only because it constitutes a recognition of the harm that these victims have suffered, but it directs the state’s resources toward healing and compensation rather than costly litigation.”

Under the proposal, those who were held at the center from 1980 onward would have one year to file claims, starting in October. Participants would waive the right to seek compensation in court. Individual claims would be capped at $1.5 million and could be paid over a period of up to 10 years.

While the bill appropriates $100 million, the fund’s administrator could request additional money from the Legislature if a shortfall is likely to occur. And Formella said he was open to further discussion about the details, and attorneys for the victims were invited to suggest changes ahead of a work session next week.

“Our folks have been denied justice for decades,” said Attorney David Vicinanzo. “We are so grateful that the attorney general and this body are beginning to address this huge, grievous wound on the integrity and reputation of the state.”

He followed up that praise with some criticism of the bill, however.

“The idea that somehow victims have to abandon all their other rights as a price of admission to this process is a non-starter,” he said. “They’re not going to do that; they don’t have that level of trust.”

The lawsuits allege that children were gang raped by counselors, beaten while being raped, and forced to sexually abuse one another. Staff members also are accused of choking children, beating them unconscious and forcing them to fight one another for food and for the staff's entertainment.

In light of those fights, victims likely would find it repellent to compete for a limited pot of funds, Vicinanzo said.

“It’s like a cage match with these 15-year-olds fighting each other. And the idea that we’re going to create a pie that’s limited, and all these traumatized people have to fight each other for their slice?" he said. “No. That’s a very bad image.”

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