New Hampshire Senate passes bill to expand scope of youth detention center victim settlements

FILE - The Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, N.H., stands among trees, Jan. 28, 2020. The New Hampshire Senate on Thursday, March 21, 2024, passed legislation to greatly expand the scope of the out-of-court settlement process to compensate victims of abuse at the state’s youth detention center. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

FILE - The Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, N.H., stands among trees, Jan. 28, 2020. The New Hampshire Senate on Thursday, March 21, 2024, passed legislation to greatly expand the scope of the out-of-court settlement process to compensate victims of abuse at the state’s youth detention center. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File) Charles Krupa

By HOLLY RAMER

Associated Press

Published: 03-22-2024 10:11 AM

CONCORD — The New Hampshire Senate on Thursday passed legislation to greatly expand the scope of the out-of-court settlement process to compensate victims of abuse at the state’s youth detention center.

The state faces about 1,200 lawsuits alleging physical, sexual or emotional abuse stretching back six decades at the Sununu Youth Services Center, formerly called the Youth Development Center, in Manchester. As an alternative to litigation, lawmakers established a $100 million settlement fund with a two-year application period that started in January 2023, but most alleged victims have opted to go to court instead. The first trial is set to begin next month.

The Senate voted unanimously and without debate Thursday to make sweeping changes to the settlement process, including adding multiple new categories of abuse. Under the current system, former center residents can make claims based on sexual assault or first- and second-degree physical assault. The bill proposes allowing claims based on a slew of other crimes, including reckless conduct, criminal threatening, child endangerment, solitary confinement, unlawful strip search and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The bill, which now goes to the House, also increases the cap on awards. Currently, victims of sexual assault are eligible for up to $1.5 million, while payments for physical abuse are limited to $150,000. If the bill passes, victims of “egregious sexual abuse” would be eligible for up to $2.5 million, victims of non-sexual abuse could get up to $250,000 and those claiming they were held in solitary confinement could get up to $100,000. The filing period for claims would be extended by six months to June 30, 2025.

Supporters have called it a compromise that will better serve victims while possibly protecting the state from astronomical jury awards. Lawyers representing nearly all of those who have filed lawsuits have said they will recommend the settlement option for most of their clients if the bill becomes law, though hundreds plan to continue litigation.

So far, 307 claims have been filed and 102 have been settled, with an average award of $492,000, Attorney General John Formella told lawmakers last month.

The scandal came to light in 2019 after two former workers were charged with abusing David Meehan, a former resident who filed the first lawsuit in 2020 and has gone public with his story. Eleven former workers are now facing criminal charges, with the first criminal trial and Meehan’s civil trial scheduled for April.

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