Consolidated youth center abuse lawsuits move forward

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A judge has consolidated hundreds of lawsuits alleging physical and sexual abuse at New Hampshire’s youth detention center, more than two years after the first case was filed.

David Meehan sued the state, the youth center, agencies that oversee it and multiple former employees in January 2020, alleging that he endured near-daily rapes and beatings at the Youth Development Center in Manchester in the 1990s. At the time, he was one of about three dozen men and women who had come forward, but since then, about 450 have filed lawsuits alleging abuse by 150 staffers over six decades.

The civil litigation has largely been on hold since 11 former youth workers were arrested last year, but a judge last week kicked it into high gear with an order setting out the consolidation process.

While consolidation brings the “the risk of cookie cutter dispositions,” proceeding with individual cases would present a “backbreaking clerical burden” for the court, said Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Andrew Schulman. The state is expected to produce more than 3 million pages of documents in the initial discovery phase. Discovery likely will take several months, and groups of cases will be combined for joint trials, lawyers said.

Attorney Rus Rilee, who represents all but a handful of the plaintiffs, on Friday filed a “master complaint” covering the allegations and legal claims that are common to his clients. He said he expects to file individual complaints for about 700 clients in the next 30 days.

“We are excited that we are now moving into the discovery phase of these lawsuits, so we can begin to take depositions and release documents to the public to shine a light on decades of systemic governmental child abuse, with the hope of preventing these atrocities from ever happening to another child in the custody of the state,” he said Monday.

The master complaint describes the history of the facility from 1850s onward, portraying it as a place where “violence, abuse and neglect simmered just beneath the surface,” while those in power “consistently turned their backs on the children.”

It alleges that multiple employees not only failed to take action to stop abuse but actively concealed it.

“More than that, State Defendants, including agents and employees in supervisory positions, tolerated or ignored a general culture of violence, abuse, boundary crossing, and disrespect and antipathy toward the children in their custody, creating fertile ground for reasonably foreseeable individual acts of abuse to proliferate, persist, and be left unaddressed, thereby creating a cycle that perpetuated abuse,” the complaint states.

According to the complaint, each plaintiff suffered at least one form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, was subject to neglect or excessive restraint or was deprived of an education. Examples of physical abuse include being pushed down stairs or slammed into walls; emotional abuse included forcing children to consume urine or garbage and encouraging a suicidal youth to “go for it.”

In hopes of avoiding lengthy litigation, the Legislature has created a $100 million fund for physical and sexual abuse victims. Victims will have two years to file claims, starting Jan. 1. Individual payments for sexual abuse will be limited to $1.5 million, while payments for physical abuse will be limited to $150,000.

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