NH Supreme Court says Child Sexual Abuse suit against DCYF can be filed openly
CONCORD – The state Supreme Court has ruled that a civil lawsuit pending against the state’s child protection agency, in a case involving Child Sexual Abuse and Pornography, does not have to be filed confidentially.
Rus Rilee, a Bedford attorney representing the adoptive parents who are planning the lawsuit against the Division for Children, Youth & Families, called Friday’s ruling “a big win.”
“Our goal in this entire appeal was to be able to publicly hold the system accountable, and to effectuate change,” Rilee said. “And we feel we definitely achieved that goal here.”
The court had to balance the public’s right to access governmental records and proceedings with a state law that protects the confidentiality of child abuse and neglect proceedings.
Lawyers: Privacy shields DCYF in Child Sex Abuse case
In its unanimous opinion, the high court reversed part of a ruling by the Superior Court that any proceedings in such a lawsuit should be filed under seal, calling that “unconstitutional prior restraint.”
But the justices reaffirmed another part of the lower court’s ruling, protecting confidential records in the child abuse case. In any lawsuit that is filed, “any portions of the pleadings therein that derive from court records of the abuse and neglect case must be submitted under seal,” they wrote.
Attorneys from the state Attorney General’s Office, representing DCYF, and CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) argued that the state’s child protection statutes require that any such lawsuit should be filed under seal to protect the privacy of the children involved.
Daniel Deane, who represented CASA in the Supreme Court case, said Friday’s order is a “partial win” for CASA “in that it confirms our understanding that New Hampshire law protects the identity and privacy of children involved in abuse and neglect cases.”
The family may file a lawsuit publicly, Deane said in an email, “but they remain obligated to maintain the confidentiality of information obtained from the abuse and neglect court records.”
The case before the court involved a child abuse and neglect investigation that the state began in 2012.
DCYF had removed two young children from their home and placed them in the custody of their grandmother. But according to court documents, their parents sexually abused the children during an unsupervised visit.
The court later terminated the biological parents’ rights and the children were adopted by their grandmother and her husband, according to court documents.
Both of the parents pleaded guilty in 2014 to two counts each of aggravated felonious sexual assault and manufacturing child sex-abuse images; both were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, according to published reports.
Rilee said he is now drafting a lawsuit on behalf of the children’s grandmother, now their adoptive mother. In addition to DCYF, he said it will also name CASA and Easter Seals New Hampshire, which he said was supervising the children’s visitation at the time of the abuse.
Deane said CASA’s mission is to advocate in New Hampshire’s courts for abused and neglected children; the organization takes seriously its obligation under state law to protect their identities and privacy, he said.
“Throughout this case, CASA has sought the guidance of the courts on how best to fulfill its mission while respecting the privacy of the children involved,” Deane said in the email. “With this ruling, the Supreme Court has given us that guidance and we respect its decision.”
Rilee said he doesn’t need to rely on confidential records to file his lawsuit. “It’s going to be based on public information, and that will give everyone everything they need to know about this case,” he said.
Rilee said what happened to the children was “horrible.”
“The abuse in this case is indescribable. It will be detailed, in some respect, in our complaint, but it really doesn’t do justice to what these poor little girls were subjected to, and what they’re going to have to deal with for the rest of their lives.”
A spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Human Services, which includes DCYF, said in a statement Friday, “The Department and the Attorney General’s office are reviewing today’s decision and will determine the implications of the decision as part of the review.”