Judge drops CASA as defendant in child abuse case

Tuesday, 05 December 2017, 07:01:41 AM. A judge has dismissed all civil claims brought against Court Appointed Special Advocates of New Hampshire by the grandparents of two girls who were sexually abused by their biological parents.Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge Gillian...

A judge has dismissed all civil claims brought against Court Appointed Special Advocates of New Hampshire by the grandparents of two girls who were sexually abused by their biological parents.

Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge Gillian Abramson ruled the judicial immunity that protects a judge from legal action extends to CASA-NH, because its volunteers act as an arm of the court by advocating for the interests of abused children. Abramson explained that CASA’s role in recruiting, training and supervising volunteers, known as “guardians ad litem,” entitles the organization to the same immunity protections.

Attorney Rus Rilee, who represents the family, said Monday he plans to appeal Abramson’s decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

“(Guardians ad litem) are appointed by the court. Private, independent organizations that raise money to employ people to train and supervise GALs are not. So, in our view, CASA should not be immune when it fails to do its job and children are harmed as a result,” Rilee said in a statement.

The civil lawsuit accuses the state’s Division for Children Youth and Families, Easter Seals and CASA-NH of failing to protect the young girls from “horrific” sexual abuse by their biological parents despite repeated warning signs. The grandparents, who are now the girls’ adoptive parents, allege the abuse occurred during supervised and unsupervised visits in 2013. The parents pleaded guilty in 2014 to felonious sexual assault charges and to manufacturing child pornography. Each was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

The grandparents initially filed suit against DCYF and Easter Seals in October 2016. CASA-NH was later added as a defendant in January.

The lawsuit accuses a CASA-NH worker of taking no action to prevent the start of partially unsupervised visits between the girls and their biological parents, though the couple had been under investigation by the Claremont Police in July 2013 for reports they molested children at a homeless shelter.

According to the lawsuit, the worker was on vacation when the decision to start the visits was made. However, the grandparents argue, the worker “knew or should have known” DCYF had not followed up on the police report in her absence and that, as a result, unsupervised visits were unsafe for the girls.

Dan Deane, a Manchester attorney representing CASA-NH, could not be immediately reached for comment Monday afternoon about Abramson’s order. CASA-NH said in a statement that it “respects the court’s decision” and noted that the issue was “thoroughly briefed by the parties.”

The question of whether CASA-NH as an organization should have blanket immunity was taken up by the Legislature in 2016, but never reconciled. Marty Sink, CEO of CASA-NH, backed a bill that would have extended immunity that exists for CASA volunteers to the organization and its staff. The bill was recommended for further study.

As the civil lawsuit moves forward against DCYF, the grandparents will be allowed to publicly disclose the girls’ confidential state records. Abramson sided with the family in favor of disclosure in her Nov. 15 ruling.

Rilee has maintained that public disclosure of the records – excluding the children’s names – will help prevent another family from having to endure a similar tragedy, and shine a light on the failures of DCYF.

DCYF unsuccessfully asked Abramson to dismiss the lawsuit late last year. The agency maintains it’s not liable for the physical harm and sexual abuse suffered by the children, and that it has no legal obligation to the grandparents.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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