The state was supposed to rehabilitate them. Instead, hundreds of children were allegedly abused in N.H.
Updated April 22, 2022
MANCHESTER, NH – 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.