The state was supposed to rehabilitate them. Instead, hundreds of children were allegedly abused in N.H.
Updated April 22, 2022
MANCHESTER, NH – When New Hampshire’s Division for Children, Youth, and Families, which oversees the YDC, announced in 2001 the findings of its investigation, officials cited five instances of abuse at the facility, primarily the result, they said, of excessive force used during physical restraint. But the report wasn’t made public, nor were the names of the five employees who were implicated.
“My impression is this is a very small group of problem employees,” Ann Larney, an associate attorney general, told reporters at the time.
Still, the allegations kept coming.
In 2009 and 2010, the Disability Rights Center of New Hampshire, a nonprofit with federal authority to investigate instances of suspected abuse involving those with physical or emotional disabilities, conducted separate investigations into workers’ use of physical restraint on children.
The first investigation found that the facility’s failings “appeared to be systemic in nature” and raised questions about the capacity of DCYF and the attorney general’s office to handle allegations of institutional staff abuse and neglect. The group highlighted a case in which a child was restrained during an incident that left “blood on the floor, desk and wall of his room.” Although legally required to report the incident to the state’s child welfare agency, the report stated, officials at the facility failed to do so.
Today, those once charged with overseeing the facility have little interest in talking about it.
“I want nothing to do with this story,” said Laurie Lutz, who served as the head of New Hampshire’s child welfare agency in the 1990s, before hanging up on a reporter.
The Globe also sought comment from New Hampshire’s six former living governors. Only Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who was governor from 1997 to 2003, and Senator Maggie Hassan, governor from from 2013 to 2017, responded.
In statements, spokespeople for Shaheen and Hassan said the senators were horrified by the abuse allegations and support efforts to help survivors seek justice; both former governors, however, sidestepped questions about oversight of the facility during their administrations.
The few former employees who will discuss the facility say they don’t recall any reports of sexual abuse during their tenure — and insist that any resident complaints were dealt with adequately.
“In those types of facilities, there’s times that use-of-force is used, and more times than not they were appropriate,” said William Fenniman Jr., who served as director of the state’s Division for Juvenile Justice Services from 2007 to 2011. “There were times they weren’t appropriate, but they were investigated every single time — and actions were taken if they needed to be taken.”
The legitimacy of those investigations, however, has been called into question.
In its 2010 investigation, the Disability Rights Center concluded that the state’s Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Ombudsman — responsible for investigating reports of mistreatment — “often did little investigation of his own, and often took staff’s word for truth over a resident’s report of an incident.” The report also included complaints that facility staffers prevented residents from obtaining grievance forms and, in one case, restrained and dragged a boy to his room after seeing him submit a complaint.
Even as the resident population dwindled in recent years, issues persisted.
In 2013, the state was forced to defend its hiring practices after it came to light that a YDC counselor had a felony record. Five years later, a third investigation by the DRC determined that staffers had used unlawful restraint when they fractured the shoulder blade of a 14-year-old boy, then failed to report the incident as required by law.
Upon the report’s completion, then-New Hampshire attorney general Gordon MacDonald and Department of Health and Human Services commissioner Jeffrey Meyers criticized the report for cherry-picking information, according to a news report at the time.
About a year later, however, MacDonald announced indictments for aggravated sexual assault against two former youth counselors and revealed his office had opened a wide-ranging investigation into allegations of physical and sexual abuse at the facility. MacDonald, now the chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, declined through a spokeswoman to comment. Meyers didn’t respond to an e-mail.
Many former residents have searched for peace in liquor bottles and needles. They’ve cycled in and out of prison and rehab. Their trauma has rippled outward, costing them jobs, shattering relationships.
In southern New Hampshire, Michaela Jancsy watches her children open presents on Christmas mornings and wonders why she feels nothing.
“When your mind figures out how to go numb to this stuff,” she says, “it’s hard to go un-numb.”
An hour west, Joseph Sheehan drinks too much and smokes too much. In 2016, staffer Kirstie Bean was charged with sexually abusing him, and pleaded guilty two years later. Sheehan — who was just 15 at the time and being held at YDC for stealing a car — remembers getting fist bumps from male employees who viewed the abuse as sexual conquest.
Now 21, he struggles with anger and with intimacy. He tells his girlfriend that he loves her, even as he wonders whether he’s capable of it.
“I’m supposed to just forget about it. I can’t,” he says. “How do you explain this to someone?”
Stephen Hayward is in his 70s now, with emphysema and a gravel voice, but he can still recall the details, 60 years on: the black trench coat of the guard who would regularly expose himself to residents; the shame he felt when a staffer entered his room one night and began fondling him.
He’d been a good kid when he entered the facility in the early 1960s, he says, a strong student with a certificate for perfect attendance and a dream of becoming a jet pilot.
He left shattered.
“You didn’t come out of that place a Christian,” he says now, a man with hard edges suddenly reduced to tears. “How could you?”
In the five years since David Meehan first came forward about his years of alleged abuse at the hands of YDC staffers, authorities have begun to pay attention.
To date, 11 current or former YDC employees face more than 100 combined charges for acts committed against 20 alleged victims.