A New Hampshire Superior Court judge has sided with a family suing the state child protection agency in a ruling that could pave the way to making confidential abuse and neglect records open to the public.
“The Court finds defendants’ interests in maintaining confidentiality in this case is motivated purely by their own self-interest in minimizing public exposure of their alleged errors,” Judge Gillian Abramson wrote in an order released Thursday.
The decision could shine a rare light on the inner workings of an agency that has been under scrutiny since two toddlers under its watch were killed. The lawsuit accuses the Division for Children, Youth, and Families and Easter Seals of failing to protect two young girls from “horrific” sexual abuse by their biological parents, despite repeated warning signs.
The court order allows the girls’ grandparents, now their adoptive parents, to waive confidentiality of state records related to the girls. Their attorney, Rus Rilee, said the next step is to file that motion.
Under state child protection laws, records from abuse and neglect investigations and proceedings must be kept in “books and files separate from all other court records” and must be withheld from “public inspection.” They are only accessible to a child’s grandparents or guardians with approval.
Rilee argued the laws shield the public from ever learning about problems within DCYF. He said children’s identities can be protected even if the state’s documents are made public. While state attorneys argued the laws are needed to protect sensitive information about children, parents and foster families, Abramson came down in favor of disclosure.
“The Court finds the children in this case – as well as all children in this State who may experience the misfortune of being involved in abuse and neglect proceedings – have a strong and legitimate interest in ensuring the proper functioning and public accountability of the entities responsible for their care,” Abramson wrote. The 16-page document also added Court Appointed Special Advocates, known as CASA, as a defendant in the suit and denied the state’s request to dismiss the case. Rilee, who represents a number of families who plan to sue DCYF, including those of Sadee Willott and Brielle Gage, praised the ruling.
“Every case we bring forward, on behalf of Sadee, Brielle, those cases are going to be litigated openly and publicly and the records associated with those cases are going to be eventually open for public consumption,” he said.
A spokeswoman for CASA said in a statement the ruling doesn’t mean the organization is liable. “CASA of NH intends to vigorously contest the plaintiffs’ allegations based on both the facts of the case and the state’s child protection laws,” said Carolyn Cote in a statement.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Lisa English said the state is still reviewing the recent order. We “will make a decision as to what actions we may take in the next several days,” she said.
In the lawsuit, filed in Hillsborough County Superior Court, the grandparents are seeking monetary damages and demanding a jury trial on several grounds. The family accuses DCYF, Easter Seals and CASA of negligence, negligent training and supervision of its employees, and breach of fiduciary duty.
The lawsuit alleges the groups disregarded concerns from the family and police about possible sexual abuse, which turned out to be founded. The girls’ mother and father pleaded guilty in 2014 to felonious sexual assault charges and to manufacturing child pornography. Each was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
The girls were ages 4 and 18 months at the time of the abuse detailed in the suit. It alleges the parents sexually abused their daughters during supervised and unsupervised visits in 2013, and that the mother filmed 14 of the incidents. Some of the abuse occurred during “bath time” with the parents, while an Easter Seals caseworker was in another room, according to the lawsuit.
Police recovered flash drives from the parents’ home that included those videos. In one, a child’s cry is muffled because her mouth is covered with duct tape and her wrists bound behind her back.
The suit alleges DCYF allowed the parents to have unsupervised visits with their daughters, even after the Claremont Police Department began investigating reports months earlier that the couple had molested a young boy and girl at a homeless shelter where they were staying. Police contacted DCYF several weeks later about the allegations, but officials took no steps to follow up, the lawsuit claims.
“The defendants later justified their decision to allow unsupervised time with the biological parents, with DCYF telling both T.C. and the investigating police officer that they had to give these parents ‘the opportunity to fail,’ ” the lawsuit says. T.C. is identified as the girls’ grandmother.
Rilee is also representing the paternal father of Brielle Gage, a 3-year-old Nashua girl killed by her mother in 2014. The father, William Boucher, has said he plans to sue DCYF over its handling of his daughter’s case. He said he wants the case heard in open court to try to bring change to the system.