New Hampshire

A lawsuit alleging abuse at a NH youth center is going to trial. There are 1,000 more to come

Eleven former state workers face criminal charges, and dozens more are accused in the nearly 1,200 lawsuits former residents have filed against the state alleging abuse spanning six decades

NBC10 Boston

It started with three words: “They raped me.”

David Meehan's disclosure to his wife seven years ago set into motion an unprecedented criminal investigation into New Hampshire's state-run youth detention center, which was built in the 1850s as a “house of reformation.” It is now called the Sununu Youth Services Center, after former Gov. John H. Sununu, the father of the current governor.

Eleven former state workers face criminal charges, and dozens more are accused in the nearly 1,200 lawsuits former residents have filed against the state alleging abuse spanning six decades. The first lawsuit, filed by Meehan four years ago, goes to trial this week.

“It’s heartwarming in a way to know that I helped these other people find the strength to be able to speak the truth about their experience,” Meehan told The Associated Press in 2021. “But at the same time, it hurts in a way that I can’t explain, knowing that so many other people were exposed to the same types of things that I was.”

Meehan originally was the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit that a judge later threw out. Now, his individual suit is the first to go to trial, with a batch of others expected later this year. Jury selection in Rockingham County Superior Court is expected to be completed Tuesday morning, followed by opening arguments.

The trial is expected to last weeks and will be the most public display yet of an unusual dynamic in which the state attorney general’s office has been simultaneously prosecuting perpetrators and defending the state against allegations raised in the civil cases. While one team of state lawyers tries to undermine Meehan’s credibility, a separate team will rely on his account to prosecute former workers during the upcoming criminal trials.

“This case and the criminal cases are closely interrelated,” Judge Andrew Schulman wrote last month. “The evidence in this case comes in part from the criminal investigation. In determining what course to choose in either venue, the Attorney General cannot possibly separate the facts into two piles, one civil and one criminal.”

Meehan was 14 when he was sent to what was then called the Youth Development Center in Manchester in 1995.

Over the next three years, he alleges he was routinely beaten, raped hundreds of times and held for months in solitary confinement. According to his lawsuit, one worker who subjected him to nearly daily abuse initially gained his trust by giving him snacks and arranging for him to play basketball with local high schoolers. He accuses other workers of standing guard or holding him down during assaults, and says when he told a supervisor how he got a black eye and split lip, the man cut him off and said, “Look little fella, that just doesn’t happen.”

A state-run juvenile detention center in New Hampshire is accused of covering up allegations of rape.

The lawsuit seeks at least $1.9 million for past and future lost income, plus compensation for pain and suffering, permanent impairment and loss of quality of life. It accuses the state of breaching its duty to act in Meehan’s best interest and of enabling the abuse by being negligent in hiring, training and supervising employees.

The state denies those allegations and maintains it is not liable for the intentional criminal conduct of “rogue” employees. The state also disputes the nature, extent and severity of Meehan’s injuries, argues that he contributed to them and that some of the alleged physical abuse in question was “excused as necessary to maintain order and discipline.”

The state also argues that Meehan waited too long to come forward. New Hampshire’s statute of limitations for such lawsuits is three years from the date of injury, but there are exceptions in cases when victims did not know of the harm or its link to the wrongful party.

On the criminal side, the statute of limitations for sexual assault involving children runs until the victim turns 40. Ten men have been charged with either sexually assaulting or acting as accomplices to the assault of more than a dozen teenagers at the Manchester detention center from 1994 to 2007, while an 11th man faces charges related to a pretrial facility in Concord. The first criminal trial had been scheduled to start this month, but a judge last week delayed it until August.

Schulman, the judge overseeing Meehan’s trial, has said those charges do not make anything in Meehan’s case more or less probable. He’s also warned Meehan’s attorneys to stick to the facts.

“This is a lawsuit, not a Manichean battle between light and darkness,” he wrote last month. “Improper appeals to passion, which ring like a bell that cannot be unrung, are the stuff that mistrials are made of.”

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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