By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee agreed Wednesday to allow Attorney General John Formella to withdraw his proposed claims process for the $100 million settlement fund for victims of abuse while children at the Youth Development Center with plans to resubmit it with changes at a later date.
Formella explained to the committee how the claims process will work, answering questions about the detailed 87-page document that several committee members found very complicated. His plan includes claims procedures and guidelines as to how to value victims’ claims.
According to Democratic committee members, there were “serious bipartisan concerns raised over the course of the meeting.”
After the meeting, Fiscal Committee members Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, and Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, issued a news release saying they were glad Formella understands the need to rethink the plan.
“Despite repeated promises of a victim-centered and trauma-informed claims process, the Fiscal Committee was presented with a document where the caps (on settlements) are too low, the process is overly burdensome, and the state is given a bulk discount on the physical and sexual abuse of children,” the release said. “While we are still left with questions, we look forward to seeing a new plan from the Attorney General that places victims’ well-being at the forefront.”
One concern raised by several committee members was Formella not working with lawyers who represent the victims to develop the process.
“I was disappointed to hear claimants’ counsel had not engaged in this and had not worked with you around developing this,” Rep. Wallner told Formella at the meeting.
Formella said all of the attorneys representing claimants received a first and second draft of the plan.
Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said he heard that there needs to be more widespread notification so people who suffered physical and sexual abuse as children in state custody know about the settlement process, such as people in prisons.
The settlement process is intended to be an alternative to traditional civil lawsuits. At the end of the day, Formella said it would be best for him to withdraw the plan and resubmit it as the committee must accept or reject it within 30 days once it has been submitted.
The law creating the fund and the alternative process for settling YDC claims was passed by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu.
Formella’s spokesman Mike Garrity said the attorney general appreciated the committee’s feedback.
“(We) remain focused on getting a process in place to help YDC victims and look forward to resubmitting our documents with updates. We are confident that all deadlines can still be met if we receive approval at the next meeting.”
Attorney David Vicinanzo, who along with attorney Rus Rilee, represent most of the victims who have come forward so far, was encouraged by the committee’s actions. He said they represent about 800 so far. Several other lawyers represent a small number of clients.
Vicinanzo has been outspoken against the alternative plan saying it tries to force victims through a process that is biased in favor of the state and creates a trap for survivors to save the state money.
Vicinanzo has so far discouraged their clients from participating in the alternative settlement process. He hopes to work with lawmakers next session to increase the fund and make the process easier for victims who have already been traumatized by the state.
The $100 million isn’t nearly enough money to compensate the YDC victims of sexual and physical abuse, he said, and legislators have indicated they would consider increasing it.
Beyond unacceptable caps, Vicinanzo said the state has ignored their requests to make the process a truly victim-centered, trauma-informed claims process.
“Although we have been telling the Attorney General’s Office for years what a successful, victim-centered process looks like, it has consistently disregarded our recommendations…,” Vicinanzo said.
“The survivors know that the proposed process is not at all friendly to them. We are gratified that the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee recognized some of the same significant flaws in the attorney general’s proposed settlement fund process that we have been raising all along,” Vicinanzo said.