Case clears the way for DCYF suits
The attorney representing the estate of Brielle Gage said this week a lawsuit against the New Hampshire Department of Children, Youth, and Families is imminent following a New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling that clears the path for such an action.
Brielle Gage is the Nashua girl murdered in 2014 by her mother, Katlyn Marin. Marin was convicted earlier this month of second degree murder and is jailed pending her sentencing hearing in December. Brielle Gage was 4 when she was reportedly beaten to death.
Rus Rilee, with Bedford-based Rilee and Associates, is representing the Gage estate, as well as the estate of Sadie Willot, and the Cole family, and is looking to sue DCYF for what he sees as problems with the agency that have resulted in more abuse and death for the victims.
"We think it’s a systemic issue that starts at the top," Rilee said.
Brielle Gage was taken away from Marin after allegations of abuse, but later placed back in the home where she would be eventually murdered. Sadie Willot was 21 months old when her mother, Katlin Paquette, allegedly killed her last year in Manchester, and DCYF was reportedly involved with that family. Paquette is facing trial on one count of second degree murder.
Rilee said these cases show that DCYF is failing to train employees, or supervise the cases properly, resulting in tragedies.
"Children are falling through the cracks," he said.
Last month, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that the Cole family can file a lawsuit against both DCYF and CASA of New Hampshire in open court. The Coles are the adoptive parents of two sisters who were sexually abused during visits with their birth family.
CASA of New Hampshire is a nonprofit organization that assigns volunteers to act as court appointed special advocates for children involved in the court system. CASA volunteers will visit with children, their families, teachers, doctors, and others involved with that child. The CASA volunteers will testify in court cases and make recommendations for placement, either in their home or origin, or into a foster home.
The children were taken out of their home and placed in DCYF custody in 2012 after it was found that the birth parents were neglecting the children, according to court records. DCYF placed the girls, then both under the age of 5, with the Cole family as foster parents. The agency, and CASA representatives, however, continued to allow for and arrange visitation with the birth parents.
Rilee said that both DCYF and CASA of New Hampshire were aware of a 2013 police investigation into sexual abuse allegations, and still petitioned the family court to allow for the visitations during which more of the abuse happened.
"That’s exactly what happened at that will be detailed in open court," Rilee said.
The birth parents are currently serving 25 years to life prison sentences after pleading guilty to the abuse in 2014. The Cole family adopted the children, and notified DCYF and CASA of a potential negligence claim on behalf of the children against the agencies. The two agencies then filed for protective orders to keep the Cole family from accessing family court records related to the case, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
A family court judge gave DCYF and CASA ruled that the Cole family could review court records, but not make copies, and further ruled that the Cole family could not file a lawsuit against the agencies in open court. Any lawsuit would have to be filed under seal and the case filed as confidential.
Rilee said that order to keep the lawsuit out of open court violates the Cole family’s constitutional rights under the First Amendment. He appealed the case, and the New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed in its Aug. 19 ruling.
"There is no valid reason to issue such a blanket order for any and all further pleadings or suits," the Court ruled.
The Court ruled that while the Cole family cannot publicly disclose the family court records, keeping the family from filing the lawsuit in open court, as CASA and DCYF requested, would be an unconstitutional prior restraint. Any part of the lawsuit that derives from confidential court records, however, must be filed under seal, the Court ruled.
Rilee said that the court’s ruling means that planned lawsuits in the Cole case, as well as suits in the Gage and Willott cases can now move forward in open court. He plans to push forward with the lawsuits soon.
"Lawsuits in each case are imminent," Rilee said.
Jake Leon, a DCYF spokesman, called the ruling a partial victory in a prepared statement, because the ruling keeps the records partially sealed.
"The Supreme Court reiterated that if the Plaintiff files a future lawsuit, ‘any portions of the pleadings therein that derive from court records of the abuse and neglect case must be submitted under seal.’" Leon wrote.
CASA attorney, Daniel Deane, also communicating through a prepared statement, focused on the confidentiality issue as well.
"Ms. Cole and her counsel may file a lawsuit publicly, but they remain obligated to maintain the confidentiality of information obtained from the abuse and neglect court records," Deane wrote. "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. With this ruling, the Supreme Court has given us that guidance and we respect its decision."
Damien Fisher can be reached at 594-6531 or firstname.lastname@example.org.