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NH settles another child abuse lawsuit

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 21. 2018 7:38PM
The state DCYF and a private social service agency that rushed through the licensing of a foster home are being sued by the mother of a young boy who suffered brain injuries at the foster home, according to records and reports filed in court in connection with the case. 

A 22-month-old boy suffered traumatic brain injury at the hands of foster parents whose license was rushed through by child protection workers, according to records and reports contained in a lawsuit brought by his mother.

Allegations in the 3-year-old case include claims that a private social service agency based in Northfield, the Spaulding Youth Center, ignored proper procedures for investigating the foster home and missed obvious red flags. In doing so, child-protection workers placed the toddler and his days-old sister in a foster home headed by a foster mom with family problems who had previously experienced the death of a baby under her foster care.

The lawsuit initially implicated the state’s child protection agency, the Division for Children, Youth and Families. After an initial version of this story appeared on Friday, Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers contacted the New Hampshire Union Leader and said the state has paid $475,000 to settle its share of the lawsuit. He called the injury “very tragic.”

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Kenneth Brown rejected calls by lawyers representing the boy’s mother and Spaulding to prohibit the publication of this article.

According to a heavily redacted judge’s order, DCYF received several reports about the child during a four-month period. Police also were notified. And the child’s natural mother, who had lost custody temporarily, had complained about signs of abuse during a hearing, court records show.

Then in October 2014, police were called to the Northfield home of George and Noreen Stohrer for the report of a boy unconscious and not breathing.

Diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, the boy, now 5, struggles with cerebral palsy, wide-ranging developmental delays and aggressive behavior, according to William H. Burke, a Portsmouth psychiatrist who wrote a rehabilitation and life care plan for the child. He faces a future of therapy, specialized education and expert medical care.

Court papers say he was found in his bed unresponsive and covered in vomit. When brought to the hospital, he had bleeding and bruising on his brain and bleeding in the light-sensitive area behind his eye.

“It appears ... that both DCYF and Spaulding Youth Center attempted to fast-track approval of this resource home and they were desperate to secure a timely placement for the children. In doing so, they placed the children’s lives in jeopardy by failing to conduct a thorough home study and closing their eyes to any issues or concerns that arose,” reads a critical review of the placement process written by Debra Schilling Wolfe, a University of Pennsylvania expert on child abuse.

The mother’s lawyers hired Wolfe to review the case.

Foster mother charged

Merrimack County prosecutors brought two felony assault charges against the foster mother, Noreen Stohrer. She eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of child endangerment. A judge sentenced her to a year of home confinement and prohibited her from working with children or being a foster parent.

A lawsuit filed in August 2015 in Hillsborough County Superior Court-North named DCYF, the Spaulding Youth Center and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of New Hampshire as defendants. Under state law, it was filed under seal, but Superior Court Judge Gillian Abramson has unsealed a small portion of the case file.

A lawyer representing Spaulding said the lawsuit is not new, but since it is ongoing he cannot add anything beyond the statements already been made in court.

“Spaulding Youth Center believes that its actions in this matter were consistent with professional standards and has expert opinions supporting that position, which will be presented in the course of the legal action,” said Manchester lawyer Brad Cook in an email.

A judge has dismissed the case against CASA.

This suit surfaced two months after the state of New Hampshire paid out $6.75 million to the grandparents of two young girls brutally molested by their natural parents while under the care of DCYF.

And while that lawsuit concentrated on shortcomings of a state agency, the Spaulding suit sheds light on agencies that contract with the state to perform social service work, in this case foster parenting and child protection.

Role of private agencies

According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, eight private agencies, including Spaulding, identify and recommend foster homes, although DCYF makes the final decision on licensing.

Those agencies — which include Easterseals New Hampshire, Child and Family Services, and Ascentria Care Alliance — manage 118 foster homes. DCYF manages 605, according to DHHS. Department spokesman Jake Leon said the opioid crisis makes it important to provide safe environments for children, and the private social service agencies assist by bringing more foster families into the system.

The lawsuit involves teams of lawyers on both sides. Manchester lawyer Peter Hutchins, who handled many of the New Hampshire priest-sex abuse cases against the Catholic church in the 2000s, brought the suit.

Hutchins said he filed it under seal as required by state law. He said there may soon be a valid reason to unseal the case.

“Cases like this include a lot of important circumstances that should be made public,” Hutchins said.

The Union Leader has challenged the decision to seal the case, and a judge has scheduled a hearing for Aug. 2 on that request.

Earlier this month, the Union Leader reviewed expert reports that Hutchins’ team inadvertently filed publicly in connection to the case.

One expert noted that New Hampshire had lost 270 foster homes over a four-year period that ended in April 2014, and the state was desperate to find a home for the boy and his sister when the baby was born. The children’s mother was a heroin addict, and officials wanted her children placed in a home when it was time for the newborn to leave the hospital.

“I have no general options at this point,” Whitney Linscott of DCYF wrote to several agencies in April 2014.

Screening the foster family

DCYF workers found a family they thought could step in. The Stohrers had moved to New Hampshire in November 2013 and had a foster care license still in force in New York state. DCYF identified the Stohrers on April 15, 2014, and instructed Spaulding on what steps the agency should take to get the two children into the home.

The baby was placed in the home on April 17, 2014, the same day that DCYF’s sister agency, the state Bureau of Elderly and Adult Services, issued an unspecified clearance, according to a report.

The Stohrers cleared the Central Registry, a database of child-abuse complaints, on April 22. The Stohrers signed their foster home application on April 23, and the toddler was placed seven days later.

The local police check was dated April 23, and New Hampshire criminal clearances arrived May 6. Health and fire inspections did not take place before the placement, and the full license was not issued until June 2.

More important, Spaulding Youth Center treated the licensing as a relicensing, which is reserved for families with a New Hampshire license.

A Spaulding worker copied and pasted information from the Stohrers’ New York license into New Hampshire paperwork.

Had an original licensing investigation taken place, many issues could have been found, according to experts hired by the family’s lawyer.

For example, Noreen Stohrer wrote in her New York application: “We have faced hardships in our marriage and they were mostly related to family. We tried working them out but when we finally realized that they were destroying us we chose to move away from the problems. We moved to my home state New York.”

Other potential problems:

• Noreen told New York authorities that her son “passed away as a direct result of 9/11,” but she later acknowledged to police he was alive.

• The family’s relationship with their daughter and her children is estranged.

• A sickly baby that Noreen fostered in New York died under her care, taking his last breath with Noreen at a supermarket.

• Noreen’s medical problems include strokes.

• Spaulding workers never interviewed a New York foster child whom the Stohrers had adopted, which is a violation of procedures.

Daniel Pollack, a professor of social work at Yeshiva University in New York, said Spaulding’s failure to check the accuracy of the information on the Stohrer file, the scant home study and the failure to interview the foster son amounted to a breach of care.

Once the child was injured, police spoke to the Stohrers’ adopted son, then 18, and got an idea of what life might have been like for the toddler inside their home.

Noreen seemed more and more “crazy” after the foster baby died in New York, he said. She hit the foster children she cared for in New York, and in New Hampshire, she took a wooden spoon to the bottom of the toddler if he cried or misbehaved.

She placed his hands over his mouth when crying.

And she and George used the word jigaboo and another crude racial epithet to refer to the boy.

“Life inside the Stohrers’ Northfield home was like hell,” he told police.

Noreen, the adopted son said, was “mentally unstable.” He moved out the day she kicked him in the ribs and poured a drink over his head.

“The Stohrers’ adopted former foster child ... was in the best position to report on the Stohrers’ abilities and shortcomings as foster parents. Had all of these concerns been pursued and addressed during the licensing process, it is my opinion that Spaulding Youth Center should not have issued a license to the Stohrer foster home,” Wolfe wrote.

Commissioner Meyers said DHHS did not initially disclose the settlement to a reporter because of some confusion about a reporter’s inquiry. DHHS worked out the settlement with Attorney General lawyers, and it was approved by the judge overseeing the case, he said.

“The Department acknowledges its responsibility to keep children in foster care safe, and that is why we have undertaken multiple efforts since these events occurred to strengthen these protections and keep children safe,” he said.

He said legislation recently passed that authorizes new resource workers to increase foster care licensing capacity. In late 2016, DCYF implemented the SAFE home study, a more rigorous and trauma-informed assessment of potential foster and adoptive families. And Meyers brought a new leadership team into DCYF.

CASA was also sued in the case, but Judge Gillian Abramson granted a motion to dismiss the suit against the agency, which provides trained volunteers to advocate for kids in court.

Hutchins said state procedures allow him to appeal the decision to drop CASA once the underlying case is resolved. “I’m not letting CASA off the hook on this,” he said. “I’m committed to appealing it. They’re a corporate entity.”

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