A woman who worked at New Hampshire’s youth detention center three decades ago testified Wednesday that supervisors and staff were dismissive at best and menacing at worst when she reported suspected abuse.

Karen Lemoine was the first witness in the first trial seeking to hold the state accountable for the abuse of children at the Sununu Youth Services Center, a Manchester facility once called the Youth Development Center. Since the state launched an investigation in 2019, more than 1,100 residents have filed lawsuits alleging six decades of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and 11 former state workers have been arrested.

Lemoine left her job in 1991, four years before the arrival of David Meehan, whose lawsuit alleges he was routinely beaten, raped and locked in solitary confinement during his three years at the facility. His attorneys are seeking to use her testimony to prove that the state’s negligence in staffing and training led to his abuse.

FIRST OF NEARLY 1,200 LAWSUITS AGAINST NEW HAMPSHIRE YOUTH DETENTION CENTER SET FOR TRIAL

Referring to a state law that outlines the facility’s mission, attorney David Vicinanzo asked Lemoine if her workplace provided a “wholesome, caring environment.”

“No, it was my experience that it was a horrendous nightmare,” Lemoine said. “I never saw one wholesome interaction.”

She recalled kids cowering in fear in the corner of their rooms as she approached, including one boy who screamed “you don’t know what it’s like!” before describing a violent rape. Though she never witnessed sexual abuse, Lemoine said she saw handprints on kids’ arms and other signs of physical abuse, and she watched staffers drag children down stairs and viciously taunt a boy who had made multiple suicide attempts.

“A lot of the people that worked there in those buildings were, in my opinion, far too rough, far too impatient and as time went on, it looked to me … that they actually were doing some of these things not because the kids were so unruly but as almost entertainment,” she said.

Lemoine said her initial attempts to raise concerns were met with polite brushoffs, but things soon escalated. A house manager crumpled up her written complaints and threw them at her. The superintendent said perhaps Lemoine was the problem. As she walked down dark corridors on her night shift, male staffers would “hip check” her and hiss “(expletive) rat!”

Another night, she was teaching several boys how to make cookies when one of them leaned over the counter and told her to be careful, she said. Workers had been telling residents that if they did as they were told, their reward would be having sex with Lemoine.

“I felt terrified for the rest of the night,” she said. “I had to walk those halls in that dark, big building with three guys in there, knowing that they were conspiring to teach teenagers how to rape me.”

Lemoine said there was a hearing to investigate, and one staffer admitted making the comments about bribing teens to attack her. But he said he was joking, and he refused to tell the teens he shouldn’t have said it, Lemoine said.

According to Lemoine, officials also made her sign a confidentiality agreement and threatened that she could end up in jail if she ever spoke of the incident. When she asked the administrator if any other action would be taken, “He stood up, pointed at me and said ‘Get the (expletive) out of here,’” she said.

The trial, which is expected to last several weeks, is the most public display yet of an unusual dynamic in which the state attorney general’s office has been simultaneously prosecuting perpetrators and defending the state against allegations raised in the civil case. In the Meehan case, the AG’s office argues that the state is not responsible for a small group of “rogue employees” and that Meehan waited too long to sue.

Under questioning by Assistant Attorney General Catherine Denny, Lemoine said she had not worked with any of the men whom Meehan accuses of abuse. She also was asked about incidents she described to Meehan’s lawyers but not to police who interviewed her in 2021; and why she didn’t report her concerns to police or state officials soon after leaving the facility in 1991.

“I felt like I had adequately reported it to someone whose job was to handle that,” she said.

Jurors also heard Wednesday from a former employee involved in creating training programs for youth center workers and occasionally investigating resident complaints. Wayne Eigabroadt testified that after he recommended that one worker be fired for using excessive force, the worker was instead promoted. Locked boxes set up to accept anonymous complaints were often tampered with, he said, and workers weren’t subtle about enforcing a code of silence by way of round stickers plastered all over campus.

“It was a rat’s head with a red circle and a line through it, and it says ‘no rats,’” he said. “All the supervisors were wearing them.”

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