Opinion: New Hampshire, it’s time to acknowledge the stories of suffering

File photo

File photo File photo


Published: 05-03-2024 6:00 AM

Ann Podlipny lives in Chester.

I was a child protection service worker (CPSW) at the Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) back in the 1990s. I’m now a farmer at the Manchester Food Bank’s one-acre garden located on the grounds of the Youth Development Center, colloquially known as the Youth Detention Center.

As I seed, weed and water the land, I face the forbidding, grim and austere red brick buildings where youth like David Meehan were incarcerated, often for years until they aged out of the system. Back then I worked with a juvenile probation and parole officer (JPPO), one of the men charged with Meehan’s physical, mental and sexual abuse at the facility. Difficult as it is to forgive myself for having consulted with this monster of a man in an innocent effort to help my clients I cannot fathom the depth of betrayal and breach of trust felt by over one thousand young people in his and others’ inhumane care. In his role as mentor, I never suspected his brutality.

Back then our caseloads were unmanageable due to sheer volume. How could one CPSW manage when mandated to provide safety and security for forty children? New Hampshire has historically underfunded this agency and underpaid its social workers, typically inexperienced and overwhelmed; turnover is frequent, burnout is high. The state professes to prioritize the well-being of its children but refuses to pay adequately for their protection.

In Rockingham Superior Court’s current civil trial, approximately a dozen men have been indicted for abusing teens at YDC. According to InDepthNH, “They allegedly covered up complaints, failed to investigate serious and credible allegations and doctored official reports and forms to hide their abuse.” Reportedly, state officials knew about the abuse problem in the juvenile detention system in the early 1990s. The state’s defense lawyer, Martha Gaythwaite’s strategy is to question Meehan’s credibility and downplay his claims of abuse.

Meehan’s testimony reveals untold depths of suffering as he tried for years to tell the authorities who tragically were his abusers. Once again, Meehan is considered neither truthful nor believable. Such disrespect for and insensitivity to his pain causes re-traumatization, as in the case of a victim whose narrative is discredited and who repeatedly loses his sense of dignity, agency and self-respect.

After years of torment, Meehan had the courage to speak out. According to InDepthNH, “His severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is one of the worst cases Dr. Terry Allen Keepers ever encountered in his long career treating victims of child abuse and it all stems from his years of being raped, beaten and tortured at YDC...the driving force in Meehan’s mental health struggles is PTSD and include anxiety and panic triggered by overwhelming flashbacks.”

Dr. Dylan Gee, a physiology professor at Yale University, testified Meehan’s crippling PTSD forces him to live every day with the abuse that happened when he was a teen. “The memories flood Meehan and become overwhelming,” she testified, “as he’s constantly confronted with the abuse. Hundreds of oral and anal rapes, the repeated brutal beatings, the consequences of solitary confinement.”

Such perverse inability of society to take a young person’s pain seriously is reminiscent of the legacy of Indian maltreatment. “Kill the Indian, save the man” was the mindset under which the U.S. government forced tens of thousands of Native American children to attend “assimilation” boarding schools. Stolen from their families by social workers and law enforcement, they were locked away for years, susceptible to deadly infections and extreme brutality. Forbidden to speak their own languages or practice their religion and culture they had to abandon their families and way of life since they were considered inferior to dominant, white colonial power. To this day, no formal government apology has ever been made.

According to Dr. M.L. King, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” The time has come to acknowledge these stories of suffering, ones we cannot “unsee.” It is my fervent hope that the state of New Hampshire issues a formal apology from those of us who have recently learned about or were formerly complicit in the collective abuse of children in state care. To the extent that it could ever be meaningful or healing or do any good whatsoever, we offer a sincere and profound apology.