Hundreds of children were allegedly abused in NH juvenile detention center

Category: Sexual Abuse

She didn’t cry when the pregnancy test came back positive. She didn’t scream or shout or attempt to explain to officials how she — a girl confined to New Hampshire’s state-run juvenile detention center — could have possibly become pregnant.

No one at the facility seemed all that interested in getting to the bottom of it, Michaela Jancsy says now. And besides, the counselor had told her to keep quiet.

She’d met him a couple years after arriving at the facility as a 12-year-old facing assault charges, who had asked to be placed at the center rather than another group home.

He was in his 30s, she says, with a wife and at least one child, and tasked with keeping watch over the children of the detention center. In a place where adults regularly ignored and tormented her, she saw him as a rare ally. He sneaked her extra bottles of shampoo and would sometimes step in when other staffers got rough. During one-on-one meetings in his office, he showered her with praise: Others might not see her potential, he told her, but he did.

Within months, she says, he began driving her to a wooded area of Manchester, raping her, again and again, in the back seat of his pickup.

When the pregnancy test came back positive, Jancsy says, it was handled quietly; aside from the nurse who administered the test, Jancsy recalls no one from the state facility approaching her to inquire about how it might’ve occurred.

Soon after, a staffer drove her to an off-site medical office. A doctor provided two pills to terminate the pregnancy. That night, she lay crying in her room, her stomach pulsing with pain, wishing for her mom.

Jancsy left the state-run facility at 17 and did her best to build a life. She got married, had children, tried — with varying degrees of success — to bury deep the things that had happened at the youth detention center.

And they might’ve stayed buried, had she not turned on the television one evening not long ago to find a news report that took her back a decade and a half.

An investigation into the juvenile facility had been opened. Authorities were looking for victims.

She picked up the phone.

For more than 150 years, the State of New Hampshire has funneled its troubled children to a sprawling correctional facility in northwest Manchester. Through the years, it has housed a steady flow of youth offenders, the numbers fluctuating from less than a dozen at times to more than 150.

For some it may have proved a temporary haven, a place to transition from a broken life to a better one. But many who spent time there depict it as a house of horrors. Rampant sexual abuse by staffers, beatings so severe they broke bones. Residents forced by staff to fight each other for food. Solitary confinement stays that stretched for months. The kind of violence that leaves lasting psychological damage, rippling through generations.

The stories of abuse have, for decades, stayed largely shielded from public view. Hints of what went on inside the institution’s red-brick dormitories came in dribs and drabs — the rare termination of a problem employee, independent investigations that outlined the center’s disturbing culture but seemed to do little to curb mistreatment.

A reckoning is finally taking shape now. And just as in some other cases of rampant child abuse — the clergy abuse scandal in Boston and in the Diocese of Manchester, for example — it is not the institutional hierarchy or government agencies that have led the way to accountability. It is the victims themselves, the children grown to adulthood, demanding action and recompense and brave enough to share their stories, who have joined in civil lawsuits wending their way through the state court system.

More than 500 men and women have so far come forward with allegations of sexual or physical abuse at the hands of staff, a pattern of mistreatment spanning six decades. At least 150 staffers have so far been implicated by alleged victims, according to court filings and attorneys for the plaintiffs. The breadth of wrongdoing, experts say, has quietly approached or exceeded some of the country’s most high-profile child sexual abuse scandals.

“New England should be beyond outraged,” said Kathryn Robb, executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy, a group that advocates for child protection legislation. “Outraged in flashing red lights.”

The alleged victims span generations and social strata. Among those who have come forward: a New Hampshire state representative who has long been critical of the center’s history but who revealed in an interview with the Globe — for the first time publicly — that he, too, was sexually assaulted by a staff member during his time at the facility.

“It was essentially a youth prison,” said Cody Belanger, a 27-year-old Rockingham Republican, who was detained at the center at the age of 13 or 14. “We felt that we weren’t worth anything, that they weren’t even going to bother listening to our concerns.”

For decades, he was right. Few did.

Now, though, as the number of alleged victims continues to grow, state leaders are promising change. A criminal investigation is underway, though officials say it could take years to complete. State legislators are considering a massive settlement plan that would set aside $100 million for victims.

Governor Chris Sununu has said he wants the building — commonly known as the Youth Development Center, or YDC — razed, and some officials have called for it to be abandoned by next spring. The governor’s link to the facility is personal as well as official: in 2006, it was renamed the Sununu Youth Services Center, after his father, former governor and White House chief of staff John H. Sununu.

A spokesman for the current governor told the Globe that Sununu has been “incredibly clear and vocal” that the allegations must be investigated and dealt with.

“We’re going to right what we need to right,” Sununu said during his State of the State address in February. “And we’re designing for the future in a way that can be more sustainable and create a better product for all of us.”

Despite such recent acknowledgment of their demands for justice, however, former residents are pushing for more. To date, they say, there has been no public apology from the state. Eleven former workers have been charged with participating in the abuse, but no one in past YDC leadership has been forced to answer for the abuses that occurred at the facility under their watch.

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.

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