Judge questions state’s reluctance to hand over child protection documents

  • Attonrney Rus Rilee speaks at the press conference announcing a lawsuit filed against the Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) and families’ call for immediate reform of the agency. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/20/2017 7:14:44 PM

A Superior Court judge questioned why state attorneys have yet to turn over documents to a family suing New Hampshire’s child protection division for failing to protect two young girls from sexual abuse.

“It feels like a little bit of ‘hide the ball’ going on here,” Superior Court Judge Gillian Abramson said at a hearing Tuesday.

In April, Abramson ruled the two young girls have “a strong and legitimate interest in ensuring the proper functioning and public accountability of the entities responsible for their care,” and the state’s interest in confidentiality is “motivated purely by their own self-interest in minimizing the public exposure of their alleged errors.”

The lawsuit accuses the Division for Children, Youth and Families; Easter Seals; and CASA-NH of failing to protect two young sisters from “horrific” sexual abuse by their biological parents, despite repeated warnings from both family members and the police. Attorney Rus Rilee filed the lawsuit last October on behalf of the children’s grandparents, who are now the girls’ adoptive parents.

The case carries weight because it could shine a rare light on the inner workings of DCYF, which has been under scrutiny since two toddlers under agency watch were killed by their mothers. Most abuse and neglect records are kept confidential under state law, but Rilee is challenging that policy as part of the suit and has already won several key rulings.

“The regime of secrecy at DCYF is coming to a close, and they are having a hard time coming to grips with that,” Rilee said after the hearing. “Because of that, they have fought us tooth and nail on confidentiality on every document, even though we are entitled to them under the law.”

Rilee said DCYF has been reluctant to turn over any documents. The hearing Tuesday focused heavily on motions he filed seeking to force the state to hand over case files, court records and photos, among other documents, related to the girl’s contact with DCYF.

State attorneys said they will turn over the documents but want guidance from the court on how to deal with privacy concerns, such as abuse allegations made against other children that are contained in the file.

“We’re asking for an order to produce them, we want to produce those documents,” said Senior Assistant Attorney General Lisa English, who held up a CD containing all the information in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester. “All we are asking for is guidance for how those should be treated, should the plaintiffs be allowed to waive others’ confidentiality.”

Internal review

The state, however, is fighting to keep secret an internal review of DCYF’s involvement with the family.

Assistant Attorney General Seth Zoracki said the quality assurance report is protected from disclosure under state law.

But Abramson questioned Zoracki’s argument, asking who conducted the review and whether they followed specific protocols.

“You simply can’t throw a blanket over every document you produce and call it quality assurance,” she said.

Both sides will submit briefs on that issue.

Last year the state Department of Health and Human Services declined to say whether officials ever internally reviewed the 2013 case from which the suit stems or changed any policies as a result. According to state records submitted to the court, a quality assurance report was completed in September 2013, months before much of the abuse described in the lawsuit even occurred.

The suit 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 admitted to the police they had sexually abused their daughters during two of the unsupervised visits in November 2013, according to the lawsuit. 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.

Zoracki said the September 2013 internal review wasn’t prompted by the “later events” and the review was a “routine quality assurance review that happens at DCYF.”

It’s not clear whether DCYF conducted a separate review at a later date looking at their handling of the case in full. Zoracki said he wasn’t aware of any additional quality assurance reports.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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