MANCHESTER — She didn’t cry when the pregnancy test came back positive. She didn’t scream or shout or attempt to explain to officials how she — a girl confined to New Hampshire’s state-run juvenile detention center — could have possibly become pregnant.
No one at the facility seemed all that interested in getting to the bottom of it, Michaela Jancsy says now. And besides, the counselor had told her to keep quiet.
She’d met him a couple years after arriving at the facility as a 12-year-old facing assault charges, who had asked to be placed at the center rather than another group home.
He was in his 30s, she says, with a wife and at least one child, and tasked with keeping watch over the children of the detention center. In a place where adults regularly ignored and tormented her, she saw him as a rare ally. He sneaked her extra bottles of shampoo and would sometimes step in when other staffers got rough. During one-on-one meetings in his office, he showered her with praise: Others might not see her potential, he told her, but he did.
Within months, she says, he began driving her to a wooded area of Manchester, raping her, again and again, in the back seat of his pickup.
When the pregnancy test came back positive, Jancsy says, it was handled quietly; aside from the nurse who administered the test, Jancsy recalls no one from the state facility approaching her to inquire about how it might’ve occurred.
Soon after, a staffer drove her to an off-site medical office. A doctor provided two pills to terminate the pregnancy. That night, she lay crying in her room, her stomach pulsing with pain, wishing for her mom.
Jancsy left the state-run facility at 17 and did her best to build a life. She got married, had children, tried — with varying degrees of success — to bury deep the things that had happened at the youth detention center.
And they might’ve stayed buried, had she not turned on the television one evening not long ago to find a news report that took her back a decade and a half.
An investigation into the juvenile facility had been opened. Authorities were looking for victims.
She picked up the phone.
For more than 150 years, the State of New Hampshire has funneled its troubled children to a sprawling correctional facility in northwest Manchester. Through the years, it has housed a steady flow of youth offenders, the numbers fluctuating from less than a dozen at times to more than 150.
For some it may have proved a temporary haven, a place to transition from a broken life to a better one. But many who spent time there depict it as a house of horrors. Rampant sexual abuse by staffers, beatings so severe they broke bones. Residents forced by staff to fight each other for food. Solitary confinement stays that stretched for months. The kind of violence that leaves lasting psychological damage, rippling through generations.
The stories of abuse have, for decades, stayed largely shielded from public view. Hints of what went on inside the institution’s red-brick dormitories came in dribs and drabs — the rare termination of a problem employee, independent investigations that outlined the center’s disturbing culture but seemed to do little to curb mistreatment.
A reckoning is finally taking shape now. And just as in some other cases of rampant child abuse — the clergy abuse scandal in Boston and in the Diocese of Manchester, for example — it is not the institutional hierarchy or government agencies that have led the way to accountability. It is the victims themselves, the children grown to adulthood, demanding action and recompense and brave enough to share their stories, who have joined in civil lawsuits wending their way through the state court system.
More than 500 men and women have so far come forward with allegations of sexual or physical abuse at the hands of staff, a pattern of mistreatment spanning six decades. At least 150 staffers have so far been implicated by alleged victims, according to court filings and attorneys for the plaintiffs. The breadth of wrongdoing, experts say, has quietly approached or exceeded some of the country’s most high-profile child sexual abuse scandals.
“New England should be beyond outraged,” said Kathryn Robb, executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy, a group that advocates for child protection legislation. “Outraged in flashing red lights.”
The alleged victims span generations and social strata. Among those who have come forward: a New Hampshire state representative who has long been critical of the center’s history but who revealed in an interview with the Globe — for the first time publicly — that he, too, was sexually assaulted by a staff member during his time at the facility.
“It was essentially a youth prison,” said Cody Belanger, a 27-year-old Rockingham Republican, who was detained at the center at the age of 13 or 14. “We felt that we weren’t worth anything, that they weren’t even going to bother listening to our concerns.”
For decades, he was right. Few did.
Now, though, as the number of alleged victims continues to grow, state leaders are promising change. A criminal investigation is underway, though officials say it could take years to complete. State legislators are considering a massive settlement plan that would set aside $100 million for victims.
Governor Chris Sununu has said he wants the building — commonly known as the Youth Development Center, or YDC — razed, and some officials have called for it to be abandoned by next spring. The governor’s link to the facility is personal as well as official: in 2006, it was renamed the Sununu Youth Services Center, after his father, former governor and White House chief of staff John H. Sununu.
A spokesman for the current governor told the Globe that Sununu has been “incredibly clear and vocal” that the allegations must be investigated and dealt with.
“We’re going to right what we need to right,” Sununu said during his State of the State address in February. “And we’re designing for the future in a way that can be more sustainable and create a better product for all of us.”
Despite such recent acknowledgment of their demands for justice, however, former residents are pushing for more. To date, they say, there has been no public apology from the state. Eleven former workers have been charged with participating in the abuse, but no one in past YDC leadership has been forced to answer for the abuses that occurred at the facility under their watch.
Even now, as one division of the state attorney general’s office works to investigate the hundreds of allegations, another department within the office has sought to discredit a victim’s accusations as it defends the state against civil claims.
“If you look at it today,” says David Meehan, a former YDC resident whose 2020 lawsuit helped bring the facility’s sordid history into public view, “we’re not that far really from where we were.”
They were among the state’s most vulnerable children. They came from cities and small towns, from broken homes and shattered families. By the time they arrived, some had already been subjected to a lifetime’s worth of abuse.
Violent youths, including the teens involved in the Pamela Smart case, were housed at YDC. But for decades, many others were sent for minor offenses: stealing or skipping school or because a parent had lost custody and there was nowhere else to put them. Once, in the 1970s, a judge reportedly ordered a 13-year-old girl to the facility because she declined to testify against a 30-year-old man charged with raping her.
When Meehan arrived at YDC in 1995, a scrawny and scared 14-year-old, he’d already heard the stories. A runaway snatched up by police for a string of burglaries, Meehan was in the back of a sheriff’s car bound for the courthouse, he said in an interview, when the kid next to him — a return offender — told him about the beatings and rapes he said happened there.
It was about a year after his arrival, Meehan recalls, that a guard arrived in his room one day to conduct a contraband search. At the man’s orders, he undressed. As a result of the sexual assault that followed, Meehan alleges in a lawsuit, he contracted gonorrhea, for which he had to be treated at the facility’s infirmary.
The assault would be the start of a horrific two-year stretch of what Meehan says was sometimes daily abuse.
There were occasions, Meehan says now, when he would be raped by two different guards in the same day. Once, Meehan says, he was forced to watch as a guard sexually assaulted a female resident (girls were housed separately at the facility). Another time, he says, he was taken to the off-site apartment of a counselor who cocked a pistol, held it to Meehan’s head, and ordered the teen to perform oral sex on him.
Another resident, Robert Boudreau, 48 now, remembers acting out in order to get put into solitary confinement. Being chained alone to a metal bed, he reasoned, was preferable to what he says awaited him in the front seat of a then-staffer’s car.
Michael Donovan, a self-proclaimed country kid, says he ended up at the facility in the late 1970s after his mother lost custody and a pair of local group homes were too full to take him. He was raped by staffers on seven or eight occasions in the weeks before his uncle — the only person he would tell about the abuse — managed to get him out, he says.
During nights at the facility, Donovan says now, “you just hoped it wasn’t your turn that night.”
The first time guards came for Michael Gilpatrick, not long after a runaway attempt, he figured he was going to get written up. But this time, the boy, housed in the facility’s East Cottage in the late 1990s, was taken into a stairwell, where two guards held him down while two others raped him, he alleges.
Like many others, he kept his mouth shut — even after the sexual abuse allegedly continued in the months and years that followed.
“Who do you go to?” says Gilpatrick. “They have control over visits, [whether you’re allowed] to go on furlough, discipline. They were in charge of everything.
“They were like God.”
The youth detention center was built on a stretch of pastoral farmland in Manchester, a sprawling property abutting the winding ribbon of the Merrimack River with a working farm and a collection of fruit trees.
It was 1858, and New Hampshire officials, taking a cue from other states, set out to create a place where delinquent children could be housed separately from adult offenders — a pioneering notion at the time. Their vision was grand: Youth would be housed, fed, and rehabilitated before emerging, thankful and reformed, as productive citizens.
“[Children] shall look back to their sojourn here, not as to a place of degradation and punishment, but as to a kind and affectionate home,” US Representative T.M. Edwards said during the facility’s dedication ceremony. “Not with feelings of shame and aversion, but with hearts filled with gratitude to the state for its parental interposition in their behalf in the hour of their extremest need.”
From the start, however, rehabilitation was often pursued with brutal force.
The facility was a haven of cruelty. One early punishment, known as the “water cure,” involved staffers spraying cold water into the face of a girl dressed only in her underwear, her hands held in restraints to prevent her from shielding herself, Governor Charles W. Tobey revealed in the 1930s. Girls were forced to lie on a bed or a laundry basket as they were beaten as many as 250 times with rubber piping.
“[They] beat them so bad that the staff would have to have other staff come in because they were so tired from beating the kids,” says Gary Wall, a onetime intern at YDC who is writing a book about the facility’s first 100 years.
Tobey, for his part, minced no words in labeling the facility a place with “punitive methods savored of barbarism and the Dark Ages.”
But while the facility would undergo a variety of changes in the decades to come — alternate names, new buildings — its penchant for violence and abuse, former residents say, would remain deeply ingrained.
Visitors to the facility, too, recall disturbing scenes.
Pamela Kirby, who regularly visited her son at YDC when he was living there in the 1990s, told the Globe she watched a campus baseball game in which one player traversed the field in leg shackles. Another parent, G. Michael Sanborn, whose foster son was a resident at YDC a few years later, recalled a visit to the facility in which he saw several children walk past without pants.
Unsettled, he inquired about the bizarre scene.
To dissuade runaway attempts, Sanborn says he was told, staff sometimes took the children’s clothing.
In 2000, the state’s child welfare agency — facing a growing list of accusations about abuse at the facility — launched an investigation.
Among the allegations were claims that children were locked in their rooms for weeks and months at a time, that a boy’s head had been repeatedly slammed into a pool table by a staffer, and that a resident had lost a fingertip after a staff member slammed his hand in a door.
When New Hampshire’s Division for Children, Youth, and Families, which oversees the YDC, announced in 2001 the findings of its investigation, officials cited five instances of abuse at the facility, primarily the result, they said, of excessive force used during physical restraint. But the report wasn’t made public, nor were the names of the five employees who were implicated.
“My impression is this is a very small group of problem employees,” Ann Larney, an associate attorney general, told reporters at the time.
Still, the allegations kept coming.
In 2009 and 2010, the Disability Rights Center of New Hampshire, a nonprofit with federal authority to investigate instances of suspected abuse involving those with physical or emotional disabilities, conducted separate investigations into workers’ use of physical restraint on children.
The first investigation found that the facility’s failings “appeared to be systemic in nature” and raised questions about the capacity of DCYF and the attorney general’s office to handle allegations of institutional staff abuse and neglect. The group highlighted a case in which a child was restrained during an incident that left “blood on the floor, desk and wall of his room.” Although legally required to report the incident to the state’s child welfare agency, the report stated, officials at the facility failed to do so.
Today, those once charged with overseeing the facility have little interest in talking about it.
“I want nothing to do with this story,” said Laurie Lutz, who served as the head of New Hampshire’s child welfare agency in the 1990s, before hanging up on a reporter.
The Globe also sought comment from New Hampshire’s six former living governors. Only Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who was governor from 1997 to 2003, and Senator Maggie Hassan, governor from 2013 to 2017, responded.
In statements, spokespeople for Shaheen and Hassan said the senators were horrified by the abuse allegations and support efforts to help survivors seek justice; both former governors, however, sidestepped questions about oversight of the facility during their administrations.
The few former employees who will discuss the facility say they don’t recall any reports of sexual abuse during their tenure — and insist that any resident complaints were dealt with adequately.
“In those types of facilities, there’s times that use-of-force is used, and more times than not they were appropriate,” said William Fenniman Jr., who served as director of the state’s Division for Juvenile Justice Services from 2007 to 2011. “There were times they weren’t appropriate, but they were investigated every single time — and actions were taken if they needed to be taken.”
The legitimacy of those investigations, however, has been called into question.
In its 2010 investigation, the Disability Rights Center concluded that the state’s Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Ombudsman — responsible for investigating reports of mistreatment — “often did little investigation of his own, and often took staff’s word for truth over a resident’s report of an incident.” The report also included complaints that facility staffers prevented residents from obtaining grievance forms and, in once case, restrained and dragged a boy to his room after seeing him submit a complaint.
Even as the resident population dwindled in recent years, issues persisted.
In 2013, the state was forced to defend its hiring practices after it came to light that a YDC counselor had a felony record. Five years later, a third investigation by the DRC determined that staffers had used unlawful restraint when they fractured the shoulder blade of a 14-year-old boy, then failed to report the incident as required by law.
Upon the report’s completion, then-New Hampshire attorney general Gordon MacDonald and Department of Health and Human Services commissioner Jeffrey Meyers criticized the report for cherry-picking information, according to a news report at the time.
About a year later, however, MacDonald announced indictments for aggravated sexual assault against two former youth counselors and revealed his office had opened a wide-ranging investigation into allegations of physical and sexual abuse at the facility. MacDonald, now the chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, declined through a spokeswoman to comment. Meyers didn’t respond to an e-mail.
Many former residents have searched for peace in liquor bottles and needles. They’ve cycled in and out of prison and rehab. Their trauma has rippled outward, costing them jobs, shattering relationships.
In southern New Hampshire, Michaela Jancsy watches her children open presents on Christmas mornings and wonders why she feels nothing.
“When your mind figures out how to go numb to this stuff,” she says, “it’s hard to go un-numb.”
An hour west, Joseph Sheehan drinks too much and smokes too much. In 2016, staffer Kirstie Bean was charged with sexually abusing him, and pleaded guilty two years later. Sheehan — who was just 15 at the time and being held at YDC for stealing a car — remembers getting fist bumps from male employees who viewed the abuse as sexual conquest.
Now 21, he struggles with anger and with intimacy. He tells his girlfriend that he loves her, even as he wonders whether he’s capable of it.
“I’m supposed to just forget about it. I can’t,” he says. “How do you explain this to someone?”
Stephen Hayward is in his 70s now, with emphysema and a gravel voice, but he can still recall the details, 60 years on: the black trench coat of the guard who would regularly expose himself to residents; the shame he felt when a staffer entered his room one night and began fondling him.
He’d been a good kid when he entered the facility in the early 1960s, he says, a strong student with a certificate for perfect attendance and a dream of becoming a jet pilot.
He left shattered.
“You didn’t come out of that place a Christian,” he says now, a man with hard edges suddenly reduced to tears. “How could you?”
In the five years since David Meehan first came forward about his years of alleged abuse at the hands of YDC staffers, authorities have begun to pay attention.
To date, 11 current or former YDC employees face more than 100 combined charges for acts committed against 20 alleged victims.
Jeffrey Buskey, accused by Meehan of repeatedly assaulting him, faces 25 counts of aggravated sexual assault. Stephen Murphy was working as a clubhouse attendant for the Boston Red Sox in 2019 when he was charged with 26 counts of assault; though prosecutors later dismissed those charges and brought a new indictment charging Murphy with 15 counts of aggravated sexual assault. He is currently suspended from the organization pending the outcome of his case, a Red Sox spokeswoman said.
Attorneys for nine of those charged either declined comment or didn’t return messages left by the Globe. Those representing Murphy and James Woodlock issued statements maintaining their clients’ innocence. All 11 have pleaded not guilty.
In a statement, New Hampshire’s Department of Justice touted the breadth of its ongoing investigation, citing a growing team of prosecutors and investigators devoted solely to examining abuses at the detention center.
“At this point we expect that the investigation and prosecution of these crimes will continue for years,” said Attorney General John Formella. “While so many have come forward, the reality is that we do not yet know the full extent of those who may have suffered as residents at YDC, and we may not know for some time.”
Today, though, former residents insist it’s impossible that facility administrators were unaware of the abuse. Some say they reported it to supervisors during their time at the facility only to be brushed off. When Meehan eventually went to police in February 2017, he says, the state trooper who arrived to speak with him was a former gym teacher at the detention center.
“One of the first things she said was she’d been waiting for us to come forward,” Meehan told the Globe.
Among those currently facing charges, meanwhile, is Bradley Asbury, who in 1994 was one of three supervisors fired from the Youth Detention Services Unit in Concord, where juveniles were held as their cases were being adjudicated. In terminating Asbury, the state concluded that he’d demonstrated a “willful misuse” of his supervisory position, according to a defamation lawsuit Asbury later filed.
The following year, however, Asbury successfully appealed his firing and was reinstated, going on to become a union leader and staunch defender of staff accused of abusing residents.
“We don’t have time to abuse them,” he once told the Associated Press.
Just a few years after he was rehired by the state, prosecutors now allege, Asbury held a resident down while another counselor sodomized him.
The settlement plan currently being considered by New Hampshire lawmakers — which would cap payment at $1.5 million for sexual abuse victims and $150,000 for victims of physical assault — has also been a source of contention. A pair of New Hampshire attorneys representing hundreds of the alleged victims — Rus Rilee and Dave Vicinanzo — say that without some changes, they will advise their clients against signing on.
“The state’s inability to unequivocally apologize for what they did to these kids and do everything they can to make them whole without retraumatizing them is inexcusable,” said Rilee, who along with wife and law partner, Laurie Rilee, has been working on the case since 2018. “[It’s] unbecoming of the state.”
But money, say the alleged victims of YDC, has never been the point.
Stephen Hayward will be dead, he believes, before he ever sees a dime from the state. He wants only for the world to know what happened.
Robert Boudreau, for his part, says there’s no amount that could ever make up for what’s been taken from him; in his mind, justice would be served if he could watch the men who abused him stand before a judge and admit to the things he says they did.
And then there is Cody Belanger.
After emerging from the facility more than a decade ago, Belanger went to college, started a business, got married. But he never forgot the sexual assault he endured during his brief time at YDC, an incident that left him sobbing on the floor of a facility bathroom.
In 2020, at the age of 25, Belanger was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Last year, after the passage of a state budget calling for the Sununu Center to shut its doors by next March, he was appointed to a committee tasked with devising a plan for closing the facility and determining how — or whether — to replace it.
Not long after, meanwhile, Belanger crossed paths with the governor at the State House in Concord. A relatively new legislator, Belanger didn’t know Sununu well. Still, he felt comfortable enough to levy a request.
When the facility finally comes down, he said, I want to be holding a sledgehammer.