Ex-state adviser implicated in youth center abuse lawsuits

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Two women, who allege abuse as minors by the ex-operations chief at New Hampshire's youth detention center, stand in their lawyer's office Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, in Manchester, N.H. Twenty men and women say they were physically or sexually assaulted as children at New Hampshire's youth detention center by a man who went on to become the facility's chief of operations and later served on a committee advising the state on juvenile justice issues. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

MANCHESTER, N.H. – The girls at New Hampshire’s youth detention center called their dormitory leader “Peepin’ Dave” because they say he leered at them through a bathroom window. But David Ball, later promoted to chief of operations, also is accused of much worse.

Of nearly 1,000 people who say they suffered physical or sexual abuse at the Sununu Youth Services Center, 20 have accused Ball, who retired in 2014 but continued advising the state on juvenile justice matters until 2021. The allegations against Ball, made in lawsuits against the state, point to a scandal that is not only widening, but also spiraling up the hierarchy.

One woman, who was 14 when she was incarcerated in 1993, said Ball raped her dozens of times — sometimes while she was in a straitjacket — and repeatedly choked her to the point of unconsciousness.

“I really thought at some point there, I was going to die,” she told The Associated Press in an interview.

Ball, now 76, is among roughly 150 former staffers who are implicated by former residents in more than 700 lawsuits naming the state as the defendant rather than individual workers.

Ball said he didn’t know until a reporter called him last week that 20 lawsuits filed between October 2021 and January of this year accuse him of physically or sexually assaulting 18 girls and two boys between 1981 and 1999.

“I don’t believe that’s true. I know it isn’t true,” Ball told the AP, saying he never hit or otherwise abused any of the children and that he has not been questioned by police.

The attorney general's office declined to comment on whether Ball is part of the criminal investigation launched in 2019. Eleven former workers have been charged with either sexually assaulting or acting as accomplices to the assault of more than a dozen teenagers from 1994 to 2007.

Lawyers for the victims have argued Ball and other supervisors fostered a culture of violence and in some cases were abusers themselves.

“Mr. Ball, and employees like him, were allowed to sexually, physically and emotionally abuse kids for decades without fear of reprisal because child abuse by state employees was not only tolerated, it was condoned,” attorney Rus Rilee said after learning from the AP about Ball’s high-ranking job and post-retirement appointment to a state advisory group.

State employment records show Ball began working at the youth center in 1974 as a dormitory assistant and became a dorm leader in 1983. He was head of the girls dormitory in 2000 when he told a reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader that most of the residents there came from abusive homes.

“A lot of the girls say this is the safest place they’ve been,” he told the newspaper at the time. “They don’t like it here. It’s very confining. But they don’t have to worry that someone is going to molest them at night.”

A resume obtained by the AP lists Ball's title as chief of operations from 2001 to 2009 and describes him as responsible for overseeing all staff “including motivation and discipline” and “creating and maintaining a safe and secure environment for both staff and residents.” He then spent five years as a field administrator overseeing juvenile probation and parole offices before retiring in 2014.

Within months, Ball joined the federally mandated State Advisory Group for Juvenile Justice. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu abruptly disbanded the group in July 2021 and replaced it with a Juvenile Justice Reform Commission, with nearly all new members. At that point, Ball had not been identified in any lawsuits, but at least one of his accusers had given his name to state police investigators.

Sununu's spokesperson, Ben Vihstadt, said the governor wasn't aware of the allegations against Ball when he disbanded the group to bring in fresh perspectives and ensure compliance with rules for receiving federal grants.

“He finds the allegations surrounding David Ball, who was appointed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, incredibly concerning, and hopes these allegations are fully investigated,” Vihstadt said.

Hassan, a Democrat now in the U.S. Senate, appointed Ball on the recommendation of the state health commissioner. Her office declined to comment.

Four of the lawsuits accuse Ball of sexual assault, including a woman whose lawsuit says he came into her room at night to molest her and forced her and her roommate to sexually abuse each other. Three accusers said he choked them until they passed out; two said he punched them in the face.

One woman claimed Ball slammed her against a wall the night she arrived at the center and told her he was going to “break her” because she looked at him wrong. Another described him as a “particularly vicious supervisor who taught and directed others to emulate him." Several said he often watched girls in the restrooms.

The woman whose lawsuit accuses him of putting her in a straitjacket said she once tried to escape during an off-campus medical appointment and told a police officer who found her hiding in a parking lot dumpster about the abuse. Ball dismissed her claims and took her back to the youth center, where she said Ball’s abuse intensified.

“He told me that he had already warned us that nothing was to be said, that people were going to be punished if stuff got out and that I made it worse for the other girls by taking off,” she said.

The AP does not typically identify people who say they have been victims of sexual assault unless they consent to being named.

Another woman suing the state told the AP she tried to speak about the abuse in 1992 after a girl complained during a group counseling session that Ball had groped her, but that she was quickly hushed by the female counselor.

“I started to say, ‘I don’t appreciate Mr. Ball ...’ but she just told me to quiet down and that the best thing to do is just basically go with the flow,” she said. “All hope was shot down.”

The woman, who was 17 at the time, said Ball backed off when she started gaining weight.

“So then I just ate a lot, but that didn’t deter anything because then other things happened with other people,” she said.

Ball suggested his accusers are motivated by money they could get via the lawsuits or the state's $100 million settlement fund for those who decide not to take their claims to court. He acknowledged being “strict” with youths and said that as a supervisor he had the final say regarding discipline or decisions about weekend furloughs and other privileges.

“So I often had to wear the hat as the guy who said no to them,” he said. “I thought, overall, I had a good relationship with most of the kids and their families.”

The youth center, which is expected to close next year, is named for Sununu’s father, former Gov. John H. Sununu. It once housed upward of 100 children but now typically serves about 10.

Cody Belanger, 28, said he didn't cross paths with Ball when he was incarcerated in 2008, but he served with him for several years on the state advisory panel. Belanger, a former state lawmaker who now leads the new juvenile justice commission, called the allegations against Ball difficult to hear.

“As someone who has faced abuse at the center myself, it disheartens me to believe that somebody I have trusted would have done that, when these students are the most vulnerable youth of an already vulnerable population,” he said. “It just goes to show that the abuse that these kids went through, it just continues to grow.”