Former intern at New Hampshire youth center says she was told to destroy notes

A former intern at New Hampshire’s youth detention center says a supervisor suggested she destroy her notes and lie about a teen’s sexual assault allegation. And though she reported the boy’s claim to state investigators and police, it wasn’t included in an annual report that state officials submitted to the federal government.

Mary Goddard spent two days a week at the Sununu Youth Services Center in 2017 and 2018 as part of a master’s degree program at the University of New Hampshire. The Manchester facility, formerly called the Youth Development Center, has been the target of a broad criminal investigation since July 2019, and more than 200 men and women have joined a lawsuit in the last year alleging they were physically or sexually abused as children by 150 staffers from 1963 to 2018.

Goddard said she was providing individual counseling to a 17-year-old boy in October 2017 when he told her he had been molested by a former counselor who was facing criminal charges related to another teen at the time. In that case, the counselor later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual assault and witness tampering in a plea deal in which prosecutors dropped 22 other charges, including 12 counts of rape.

Hundreds claim decades of abuse by 150 youth center staffers

Goddard said a supervisor she approached responded, "Well, she’s not here anymore, so he’s not in any danger." A few hours later, he told her to call the central intake office at the state Division of Children, Youth and Families to report the allegation, which she did. But when she asked him what she should do with her notes from the counseling session, he told her to "get rid of them," she said.

"I said, ‘There’s an active criminal case going on. What if charges are brought against her, shouldn’t I hold on to these? What happens if I get subpoenaed?’" said Goddard. "He said, ‘Oh, you can just tell them that you don’t remember what happened."

Under state law, it is illegal to alter or destroy evidence knowing that an investigation is pending or about to begin with the intent of impairing its use in such an investigation.

Francis Williams, a professor of criminal justice at Plymouth State University, said he couldn’t comment on whether destroying the notes would have been a crime because he is not a lawyer and doesn’t have all the facts. But he said in general, the supervisor should have known that such notes could be subject to subpoena.

"I’m looking upon that very unfavorably, the idea that the supervisor would tell her to destroy the notes. And then, ‘Tell them you don’t remember?’ Excuse me?," he said. "He’s telling her to basically lie, at least initially to investigators and perhaps if she’s subpoenaed, to lie to the court, which could put her in jeopardy of being charged with perjury."

Goddard, who ignored the suggestion to throw away her notes, first described the incident in journal entries she submitted to UNH as part of her internship and in her final paper. She provided a copy of that paper to The Associated Press for review, along with an email confirming that she met with a state investigator and state police in November 2017.

No additional charges were brought against the former counselor. Her attorney, Cathy Green, declined to comment on the new allegations last month other than to say, "there was a complete investigation with many people interviewed."

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services also declined to comment on Goddard’s account other than to point out the youth center’s ombudsman program to receive complaints and policies that require staff to document interactions with residents. Questions about the abuse allegation were referred to annual reports the department files as part of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

But while those reports note the allegation that led to the former counselor’s conviction, the filings say there were no allegations of sexual assault reported in 2017. Separately, an audit completed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2018 found the center met or exceeded its 43 standards related to complying with the federal law. It interviewed 12 randomly selected residents and two who had made sexual harassment allegations.

"All residents knew the multiple ways to report abuse and felt very confident that any report they made would be properly addressed by the facility’s administration," auditors wrote. "Residents stated that they felt very safe at SYSC and they believed that staff cared about their well-being and safety and would thoroughly investigate any and all alleged sexual abuses."

That is at odds with Goddard’s recollection, however. Though she did not witness any physical or sexual abuse, she said a culture of defensiveness and dismissiveness permeated the facility. While she praised some staff as dedicated and caring, "There definitely overall was a very prevalent culture and air of ‘these kids are bad and they deserve what is happening to them, and they just need to learn," she said.

"So many times kids would say things to me like, ‘It’s always going to be a kid versus an adult, and no one ever believes the kid,’" she said. "The longer I stayed there, the more depressed I became about being there, because I could see the hopelessness and helplessness of these kiddos."

Goddard decided to speak out after reading an Associated Press article about the civil lawsuit. Asked why she decided to go public, Goddard broke down in tears and offered an apology to the teens she met at the center.

"I’m really sorry that I saw you and how you were hurting and I couldn’t do anything. It’s not that I didn’t want to, and I want to do what I can now," she said. "I want you to know that I saw your pain, I saw how you were hurting, and I’m so sorry."