Hearing set on effort to dismiss youth center abuse lawsuit

CONCORD (AP) — A judge will hear arguments next week on whether to dismiss a lawsuit alleging decades of abuse at New Hampshire’s youth detention center. Meanwhile, Gov. Chris Sununu appears to be distancing himself from the state’s strategy in the civil case.

The March 25 hearing will be the first in the case that was filed more than a year ago on behalf of three dozen men and women who say they were physically or sexually abused as children at the Youth Development Center in Manchester. The plaintiffs’ attorney now represents more than 230 clients who allege abuse by 150 staffers from 1963 to 2018.

At the same time the state is seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, it also is pursuing a broad criminal investigation into the facility, which is now called the Sununu Youth Services Center after former Gov. John H. Sununu. Though the motion to dismiss includes the argument that the lead plaintiff waited too long to come forward, the current governor told The Associated Press the state “will help ensure that all alleged victims who come forward have their voices heard.”

“To be honest, I am not convinced that the motion to dismiss should have been filed, and I’ll reiterate my desire that any person that has information or allegations come forward,” he said in an email.

Sununu said the request was “not based on any desire to deny alleged victims their day in court in the civil case” but rather was intended to allow more time to complete the criminal investigation. As for the criminal case, he repeated that the state “will leave no stone unturned in its effort to bring the perpetrators in these heinous crimes to justice.”

The simultaneous civil and criminal proceedings could create the appearance that the former is driving the latter, said Albert Scherr, a professor at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.

“As part of the criminal investigation, as a prosecutor, you want to be making decisions based on what is the best interest of justice in that case as an ethical matter. If your charging decision-making is influenced by ’Well, if I did it this way, that would be better for the state and the outcome of the civil case,’ that’s a problem,” he said. “The attorney general’s office needs to sort that out and be as transparent as possible about how they’re dealing with that.”

He also suggested the state should outsource the civil lawsuit to a private law firm.

“It just looks bad,” he said. “These are two very important cases and they involve allegations about state employees that are to say the least, outrageous. They can’t just say, ‘Oh, trust us, we can hold two things that are related to each other but maybe are in conflict in our minds at the same time without any problem.’ That’s just not adequate.”

But Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said it is not unusual for criminal and civil investigations to run concurrently, and that the office has systems in place to build strong “ethical walls” to keep them completely separate.

“Everyone knows who’s on which team, and they aren’t allowed to talk to each other, they’re not allowed to be in meetings where anything is discussed about the case. If a group meeting of some type happens and somebody needs to talk about it, one side has to leave the room,” she said. “We’re very, very sensitive to this issue and very cognizant of it.”

While the state has brought in private firms to assist with other cases in the past, it doesn’t give up control.

“We lead those cases, those cases are not outsourced,” she said. “That would be an inappropriate thing to do, because especially in the case of the civil matters, we have a client, and the Department of Health and Human Services has as much a right to be represented by the attorney general’s office as the attorney general does to run a criminal investigation.”