32ºF

AP Exclusive: Dozens allege abuse at youth detention center

PORTSMOUTH, NH – More than two dozen men and women say they were physically, sexually and emotionally abused as children at New Hampshire’s state-run youth detention center over the course of three decades, according to attorneys who have filed a class action lawsuit on their behalf.

The lawsuit filed Saturday in Merrimack County Superior Court comes six months after two former counselors were charged with repeatedly raping a teenage boy at the Youth Development Center in Manchester, New Hampshire, in the late 1990s. The victim in that case is now the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by attorneys representing 35 others who say they were abused between 1982 and 2014.

“This lawsuit seeks to hold the state of New Hampshire and others responsible for the lives they forever destroyed and to bring about system change so that this can never happen again to another child in New Hampshire,” the lawsuit states.

The victims who have come forward were between 11 and 17 at the time, and the perpetrators were both men and women, attorney Rus Rilee told The Associated Press. Of the 36 victims, approximately 30 allege they suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse, were deprived of an education and kept in solitary confinement, while the rest fall into one or more of those categories, Rilee said. They were terrorized into keeping quiet, and even those who sought help while sporting black eyes, swollen faces and bleeding genitals were told that the abuse had not occurred, the lawsuit alleges.

“These are boys and girls that were taken into state custody and then beaten, raped and tortured by state employees whose sole duty was to protect them,” Rilee said. “The people that were in charge knew what was going on, and they covered it up.”

The Associated Press doesn’t generally identify victims of sexual assault, but David Meehan, who is now 38, said he wanted to come forward publicly after realizing that he and others were harmed not just by individual staffers but by a system.

“They didn’t do anything they were supposed to do to protect me as a person or any of my rights as a human being,” said Meehan, the lead plantiff in the lawsuit. “The juvenile justice system needs some type of oversight. I understand the need for privacy to protect the children, but they have put such a canopy over everything that we don’t know if the kids are safe.”

The lawsuit names a dozen defendants, including the state, the detention center and the agencies overseeing it. It also names the two former counselors facing criminal charges — Jeffrey Buskey and Stephen Murphy — and four other men who worked at the center, which houses children who have been ordered to a secure institution by the juvenile justice system.

The Department of Health and Human Services does not comment on pending litigation, and referred questions to the attorney general's office, which in July announced a broad criminal investigation into the youth center, including whether additional children were subject to physical or sexual violence. The spokeswoman for that office said Saturday that officials will review the lawsuit as that investigation continues. Attorneys for Buskey and Murphy did not respond to requests for comment.

Meehan, who was at the detention center from December 1995 to January 1999, declined to discuss his time there because of the ongoing criminal case. But the lawsuit describes years of alleged abuse, starting about a year after his arrival. Buskey, 53, is accused of gaining Meehan’s trust by giving him snacks and coveted work assignments, and arranging for him to play basketball with a local high school team. But by early 1998, he and Murphy were allegedly raping and beating him almost daily.

The lawsuit also alleges that a third staffer raped Meehan once while another employee stood guard. Another staffer is accused of holding Meehan down during assaults, and a supervisor is accused of denying him help. According to the lawsuit, the supervisor saw Meehan crying with a black eye and split lip, but when Meehan said he had been beaten and raped, cut him off and said, “Look little fella, that just doesn’t happen.” Around the same time, a nurse who observed Meehan crying, with his face bruised and nose broken, told him his injuries appeared to be self-inflicted, according to the lawsuit.

In a post on a fundraising website he appears to have written in August, Buskey said he is innocent and described himself as “a doting grandfather, a loving father, and a kind person.”

Murphy, a 50-year-old Massachusetts resident, worked until July as a clubhouse attendant for the Boston Red Sox, which has suspended him without pay. His attorney has said Murphy doesn't know the victim and denies all the charges.

Meehan said he landed in the detention center after running away from a physically abusive home and joining what he described as a biker gang of thieves. After one arrest, he said he was being transported back to a pre-trial holding facility when another teen already at the center told him about being raped and beaten. Meehan said they persuaded the sheriff's deputy to stop for a bathroom break and then fled, still wearing their handcuffs. They were on the run for two weeks before being caught.

“This was an older brother, looking out for me,” he said. “He was telling me that he wasn't going to allow me to walk into that.”

Since his release, Meehan has married and raised three children, and for years owned a roofing and residential construction company. But he’s also been arrested for drunken driving and for burglaries, which he says he committed to pay for what at times was a $500-per-day heroin habit. The drinking and drugs allowed him to avoid thinking about his past, he said. His wife, Erin Meehan, whom he began dating as a teenager, said she knew nothing of the abuse until 2017, when he told her, “They raped me.”

In a lengthy interview that included some tears, Meehan said he is determined to stand up for other victims.

“It’s about holding people accountable for their own actions," he said. "I personally have to face judgment for things I’ve done wrong, which seem petty compared to what these guys did. Why should any of us survivors carry the burden of their dirty secret anymore?”