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N.H. lawmakers consider expanded eligibility for youth center abuse fund

CONCORD, N.H. — A proposed settlement fund for former residents of New Hampshire’s youth detention center has been expanded to include victims of physical abuse.

The House Finance Committee is working on a bipartisan bill that would create a $100 million fund to compensate those 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, including two from Massachusetts. Nearly 450 former residents have sued the state, with allegations involving more than 150 staffers from 1963 to 2018.

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Under the original settlement fund proposal, victims of sexual abuse from 1980 onward would be eligible for payments of up to $1.5 million each. A new draft discussed Thursday would eliminate the 1980 cutoff date and make victims of physical abuse eligible as well, but their awards would be capped at $150,000.

Attorney General John Formella, whose office is both defending the state against the lawsuits and prosecuting former workers, told members of a subcommittee he would prefer to limit claims to sexual assault given the difficulty of verifying physical assault claims and parsing various defenses. Including physical abuse claims with a lower cap balances those difficulties with the desire to compensate claimants for the harm they suffered, he said.

Attorney David Vicinanzo said he was glad to see physical abuse included but pressed for additional categories, including emotional abuse caused by solitary confinement. He is part of a team representing hundreds of victims, many of whom say they suffered tremendous harm from spending weeks at a time locked up alone.

“I’m not going to give up on those folks, and I don’t think the state should either,” said Vicinanzo, who also objected to the proposed $150,000 cap on awards for physical abuse.

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His comments drew an angry response from Representative Ken Weyler, Republican of Kingston, who said it was “ridiculous” to claim solitary confinement constitutes abuse and that he wants to see proof that financial awards actually help victims.

“You’re just looking for money. What does the money do? Nothing,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a waste.”

The proposal also would create an exemption from the state’s right-to-know law for all records related to the administration and settlement of claims except for the settlement agreements. Annmarie Timmins, a New Hampshire Bulletin reporter speaking on behalf of the New Hampshire Press Association, urged lawmakers to remove that provision.

She argued that current law already includes a process for shielding personal information about children from public view. And she noted that when the state investigated abuse in the Catholic Church decades ago, it made thousands of pages of records public, with victims’ names and other information redacted.

“It’s important to know what happened and how it happened, and that’s how you find out,” she said. “The public knew and understood how the abuse happened, and how those victims were failed.”