The Attorney General’s Office has released a draft of its settlement form for victims abused at the former Youth Development Center. It calculates awards based on the type of abuse, how frequently it occurred, and how many abusers were involved. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Attorneys representing nearly 600 former Youth Development Center residents in abuse claims against the state have asked a judge to move forward with litigation on 450 of those cases. They say their clients are proceeding with their lawsuits because they continue to distrust the settlement option offered by the state.
The request comes as the Attorney General’s Office prepares to seek approval from the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee for its draft guide for compensating victims.
The proposed rubric calls for paying victims of some types of rape $200,000, while awards for physical abuse range from $2,500 to $50,000. Payments would be further determined by frequency of the abuse and number of perpetrators involved, according to the draft. And “aggravating factors,” such as a rape that leads to pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease, would also enhance payments, the draft states.
But a law passed this year caps how much victims can receive. No one can receive more than $1.5 million, whether they’ve been sexually or physically abused or both. A victim of physical abuse could receive no more than $150,000. In total, the law sets aside $100 million to compensate victims.
The rubric casts in stark terms the brutality of abuse hundreds of men and women said they experienced while held at the former youth center.
Jennifer Ramsey, senior assistant attorney general, said those guidelines were based on settlements in other cases in and outside New Hampshire, and may change based on feedback from victims, their attorneys, and victim advocates. The intent, she said, is to help victims decide whether to pursue the settlement or a lawsuit. Nearly 600 have chosen the latter.
“To the extent that we had to put numbers to specific types of harm, that was done in an effort to give people some certainty to what they might hope to recover so they could make an informed choice going in,” she said.
In their filing last week, attorneys David Vicinanzo and Rus Rilee asked Merrimack County Superior Court to lift a pause it put in place last year while the court decided how to handle so many cases. Vicinanzo said they are hoping for a decision during a case status meeting next week.
“Plaintiffs acknowledge that the state’s delay strategy and its related goal – paying as little compensation to as few victims as possible – is legally allowable to a certain point,” they wrote. “But that point has come and gone. After decades of suffering in silence, it is time for plaintiffs to be heard and receive justice.”
In the coming weeks, Vicinanzo said he and Rilee will file 150, possibly 200, additional lawsuits in Hillsborough County Superior Court alleging abuse at the former youth center.
Vicinanzo, as well as state and national child advocates, warned lawmakers this year that victims would be unlikely to pursue the settlement process, faulting the caps as arbitrary and too low, and criticizing the exclusion of emotional and non-contact sexual abuse. They’ve also criticized how much time the state is giving victims to request a settlement – between Jan. 1, 2023, and Dec. 31, 2024. They say it is too little time.
Vicinanzo and the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said they were not asked for input on the draft compensation rubric or proposed settlement guidelines before they appeared on the Department of Justice’s website this month.
Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the coalition, said some victims are unhappy about the way awards are calculated.
A victim who receives $20,000 for a single instance of sexual abuse would not necessarily receive $40,000 for two instances of sexual abuse or $60,000 for three, according to the draft rubric. Instead, the victim would receive something between $20,000 and $60,000 as determined by a complicated “frequency multiplier” established in the draft guidelines.
“For sexual abuse, add the number of instances of the most severe level of abuse suffered plus one-half the number of instances of the two next lower levels of abuse suffered,” it reads. “Instances of abuse three of four levels lower, if any, shall not be counted.”
Grady Sexton said, “We’ve heard concerns from victims and their attorneys that under this draft proposal, the more you were abused, the less each incident of abuse is worth.”
Ramsey said the state’s intent is not to minimize victims’ experience or trauma or undervalue their injuries.
“I think this process provides a nice alternative for people who do not want to go through all of the discovery of the legal process: trials, depositions, all the things that are usually associated with litigation,” she said.
Ramsey said the state hopes to settle cases between 60 days and nine months, far less time than a court case would likely require. “It’s premised on the idea that the purpose of this is to verify a claim, and it’s not to resist a claim,” she said.
Victims who have already filed a lawsuit can file a claim as long as they agree to pause the lawsuit while they are discussing a settlement with the state. If they dislike a settlement offer from the Attorney General’s Office, victims have three choices: try to negotiate for a higher amount; ask the settlement administrator to choose an amount that resolves the difference; or withdraw their claim and resume their court case.
It remains to be seen how many victims will pursue the settlement option. While Vicinanzo and Rilee say their nearly 600 clients will not, there may be hundreds more who will.
“I think getting this process up and running and making it as welcoming as possible can be a way to find that out,” Ramsey said.
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