Family sues DCYF over sexual assaults

  • Rus Rilee speaks at the press conference announcing a lawsuit filed against the Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) and families’ call for immediate reform of the agency.

Monitor staff
Published: 10/20/2016 2:17:50 PM

The state’s child protection agency and Easter Seals failed to protect two young girls from “horrific” sexual abuse by their biological parents despite repeated warning signs, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.

The civil lawsuit filed by the grandparents – also the adoptive parents of the girls – accuses the state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families and Easter Seals of disregarding concerns from the family and police about possible sexual abuse. It turns out their concerns were justified and the allegations true.

The 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 lawsuit is the first of several attorney Rus Rilee plans to file in the coming weeks against the state. Rilee also represents family members in the fatal child abuse cases of 3-year-old Brielle Gage in Nashua and 21-month-old Sadence Willott in Manchester. Both girls were killed while their cases were under DCYF’s supervision, authorities say.

In the initial lawsuit brought Thursday in Hillsborough County Superior Court, the grandparents of the now 5-year-old and 7-year-old girls are seeking monetary damages and demanding a jury trial on several grounds. The family accuses DCYF and Easter Seals of negligence, negligent training and supervision of its employees, and breach of fiduciary duty.

The state had a responsibility to ensure a safe environment for the girls, yet officials failed to “promptly and thoroughly investigate” allegations of sexual abuse, the lawsuit says. Instead, knowing the parents’ history, employees relaxed their supervisory requirements by allowing closed-door visits with the children, further placing the girls in harms way.

More broadly, the family is calling for substantive changes to how DCYF operates, to include greater transparency and more accountability.

When contacted about the lawsuit Thursday, state officials declined to discuss specifics, citing the pending litigation.

Rilee fought a lower court protective order initially preventing the grandparents from being able to file the lawsuit in public. This past August, the state’s Supreme Court ruled in his favor, calling the order unlawful. At the same time, the higher court maintained that all abuse and neglect records must remain confidential.

The family hopes that by making the lawsuit public, they’ll shine light on a failed system in need of reform, Rilee said at a news conference Thursday in Concord.

“These horrific acts of sexual abuse were 100 percent foreseeable and 100 percent avoidable, and these two girls should never have been placed back into the care of the two monsters who inflicted this abuse on them,” he said. “The adoptive family is working tirelessly to get the girls the type of treatment they need to address the trauma they have experienced, but they have a very long road ahead of them.”

The girls were ages 4 and 18 months at the time of the abuse detailed in the lawsuit. The suit alleges that the parents of the children sexually abused the girls during supervised and unsupervised visits in 2013, and that the mother filmed 14 of those sessions.

Police recovered flash drives from the parents’ home containing 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 lawsuit says some of the abuse occurred during “bath time” with the parents, while an Easter Seals caseworker was in another room.

DCYF allowed the mother and father to have those unsupervised visits, even after the Claremont Police Department began investigating reports that summer 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.

The grandmother said she grew increasingly concerned about unusual behaviors the girls were exhibiting after visits with their parents. When she shared with DCYF in November 2013 her belief that the children were being abused, she said she never received a response.

The grandmother said one girl consistently held her diaper area while she cried and said, “ow.” The other child was found rubbing a paintbrush against her genitals. When the grandmother confronted the girl, she screamed, “mommy and daddy do it – no they don’t! don’t tell, I’ll get in trouble!”

After the grandparents became aware of the abuse, they immediately went to police. Days later, the parents confessed to their crimes.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees DCYF, referred questions about the lawsuit to the state attorney general’s office Thursday. But HHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers said the department “takes very seriously the need to ensure for the safety and well being of New Hampshire’s children. That is why we and the Governor called for an independent review of DCYF.”

The department did not answer questions about whether it took disciplinary action against the DCYF worker named in the lawsuit, or whether it conducted an internal review of the case.

Easter Seals declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said it is taking the matter “very seriously.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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