Family of abused girls seeks public disclosure in DCYF lawsuit

Monitor staff
Published: 8/9/2017 12:19:39 AM

The grandparents of two girls who were sexually abused by their parents are seeking a court order allowing them to publicly disclose the girls’ confidential state records as part of an ongoing civil lawsuit.

Those abuse and neglect records will shine a light on how the state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families failed to protect the girls from harm, and help hold the agency accountable, the grandparents argue in their motion for summary judgment.

The grandparents hope to waive confidentiality of the girls’ records – excluding the children’s names and the names of their biological parents – in the context of a civil lawsuit filed last year against DCYF, Easter Seals and Court Appointed Special Advocates of New Hampshire. The lawsuit alleges DCYF and others failed to protect the girls from “horrific” sexual abuse by their parents, despite repeated warning signs.

Also late last month, CASA filed its motion to dismiss all civil claims brought against the organization. The parties in the lawsuit have until Sept. 18 to respond to the motions.

Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge Gillian Abramson has previously come down in favor of disclosure of state records. Abramson wrote that “as legal parents acting in the best interest of their children, the Court finds T.C. and D.C. have the authority to waive confidentiality in this case.”

In the same ruling, Abramson said the state’s interest in maintaining confidentiality is “motivated purely by their own self-interest in minimizing public exposure of their alleged errors.”

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.

The family’s attorney, Rus Rilee, wrote “the airing” of the information will benefit the girls but “also serve the public good by revealing how an agency charged with protecting children from harm could instead, in the face of repeated warnings, expose two little girls to be repeatedly sexually abused by their biological parents, with the goal that this kind of event never happen again.”

The girls’ 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 that DCYF allowed the parents to have unsupervised visits with their daughters – then 4 years old and 18 months old – even after the Claremont Police Department had begun investigating reports that the couple molested a young boy and girl at a homeless shelter where they were staying. The parents later told police they had sexually abused their daughters during two of the unsupervised visits in November 2013, according to the lawsuit. The mother and father reached separate plea deals in 2014 and were each sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for their crimes.

As the family awaits a decision on the release of the girls’ records, CASA is arguing for the dismissal of the five claims brought against the nonprofit organization. CASA was added to the lawsuit in April, at the same time Judge Abramson denied DCYF’s motion to dismiss the case.

CASA says it’s entitled to “absolute quasi-judicial immunity as a matter of law” because its volunteers were acting as an arm of the court. Quasi-judicial immunity extends judicial immunity to individual guardians at litem who are appointed by the court pursuant to statute.

However, under New Hampshire law, CASA as an organization does not have blanket immunity from lawsuits. Lawmakers shot down a bill in 2016 that would have extended the immunity that currently exists for CASA guardians ad litem to the organization and its staff.

Attorneys for CASA wrote that if the immunity argument does not stand, the claims filed by the family “fail on their own terms.” CASA argues its sole duty is to the court and not to the family in this case. Any alleged failures to investigate reports of possible child abuse or neglect are the responsibility of DCYF and any attorney representing that child, the motion states.

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

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