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Calling for federal action to protect vulnerable kids in N.H.

A Concord attorney says the US Department of Justice has the most power to help kids in New Hampshire’s Youth Detention Center. But the US Attorney he reached out to says her hands are tied.

A sign calling for a federal investigation into New Hampshire's youth detention center is displayed outside the Statehouse on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. Former residents of the Youth Development Center, now called the Sununu Youth Services Center, held a rally to express frustration at the state's handling of both a criminal investigation into the facility and hundreds of civil lawsuits.Holly Ramer/Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. — Concord Attorney Mike Lewis is beyond frustrated.

On Sept. 26, he asked the US Attorney Jane Young to take federal action on what he believes is the single most grievous legal issue New Hampshire has faced in his lifetime: alleged crimes committed against vulnerable children who have been abused.

“Over the past decade,” he wrote in his letter, which you can read below, “it has become apparent, to an irrefutable extent, that the state, and its officials, have engaged in extreme, grievous, violent, illegal, and corrupt conduct toward New Hampshire’s most vulnerable population: children victimized by child abuse and neglect.”


Take allegations about decades of abuse at the Sununu Youth Services Center. That “raises serious federal civil rights questions that are both obvious, and yet have not been addressed by your office or any other state or federal actor,” Lewis wrote.

Victims of these crimes have also pushed for a federal investigation, frustrated by how slowly criminal and civil proceedings are moving.

Others have argued the state is conflicted in this case: the Attorney General’s Office is both prosecuting former state employees who allegedly abused children and simultaneously defending the state in the civil lawsuit brought by victims.

Lewis said the US Department of Justice has the most power to intervene.

There are a few ways federal authorities can pursue justice that are not available to private attorneys. For instance, the civil rights division can investigate if individuals in a residential institution were deprived constitutional or federal statutory rights, under a law called the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

There are other investigations that use the Americans with Disabilities Act to investigate and protect the civil rights of children.

States like California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Vermont, among others, have taken action in the past decade to protect the civil rights of children.


Young responded to Lewis’ letter right away, but it wasn’t the answer he hoped for. She said she has to recuse herself from the matter entirely because she was the deputy attorney general when initial individuals were charged with crimes from their time working at YDC.

“The Department has stringent recusal rules and anything that touched my prior position leads to my recusal,” she said in an email to Lewis.

That means First Assistant Attorney Jay McCormack would have to lead any federal action.

But as Lewis sees it, Young has more power and ability to leverage resources than McCormack since she was appointed by the President and approved by the Senate.

“I’m devastated by this,” Lewis said. “Just to hear that for the last 18 months, our US attorney has operated under an unannounced restriction on her ability to fight on this issue is devastating to me to hear.”

This story first appeared in Globe NH | Morning Report, our free newsletter focused on the news you need to know about New Hampshire, including great coverage from the Boston Globe and links to interesting articles from other places. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail Monday through Friday, you can sign up here.

Amanda Gokee can be reached at Follow her @amanda_gokee.