A $100 million fund to settle sexual and physical abuse claims at New Hampshire’s state-run youth detention center is headed to the governor’s desk.
The state Senate voted 14-10 Thursday in favor of creating a 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 last year. Nearly 450 former residents have sued the state, with allegations involving more than 150 staffers from 1963 to 2018.
Under the proposed settlement fund, victims of sexual abuse would be eligible for payments of up to $1.5 million each, while payments to victims of physical abuse would be capped at $150,000.
The Republican-led Senate rejected an amendment offered by Democrats that would have increased those limits to $2 million and $200,000, respectively. Democrats also unsuccessfully argued in favor of expanding the definition of sexual abuse to include incidents such as forcing children to watch child pornography or subjecting them to indecent exposure.
“Not knowing what we don’t know and how many of these there might be, I think it’s appropriate to sit tight and wait before we broaden the scope,” said Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro. “It’s not the end of the process. Let’s let the process work.”
The center is named for former Gov. John H. Sununu, father of current Gov. Chris Sununu, who has has expressed support for the settlement bill. The state currently spends $13 million a year to operate the 144-bed facility, though the typical population now is about a dozen teens.
The two-year budget signed in June included a mandate to close it by March 2023, but the House passed a bill Wednesday giving the state until June 30, 2024, to build a new six-bed facility. That bill now goes back to the Senate, which also had approved a deadline extension but called for up to 18 beds.
The settlement fund legislation was opposed by attorneys for the victims, as well as state and national organizations that advocate for sexual assault survivors.
“This bill is a political move to fool the public into thinking the current political leadership actually cares about the children the state abused,” attorneys Rus Rilee and David Vicinanzo said in a statement. “Survivors of child abuse will not be duped by this political theater. The public should not be either.”
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said the bill was incomplete, inadequate and neither victim-centered nor trauma-informed.
“My vote today is on behalf of those victims who were horrifically abused as children. I can not fathom the pain and suffering they have endured. This is simply too much not to get right,” he said. “I will not support the bill, but I will support the children.”