Editor’s note: From the time she was a little girl growing up in the Upper Valley in the 1980s, Becky Dunbar has struggled with the impact of what she believes was the state’s failure to protect her from abuse as a young girl. This three-part series by Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, published in the Sunday Valley News through Jan. 6, tells the story of Dunbar’s life as she lost her childhood, her sense of safety and, ultimately, custody of her own children.
[W]HITE RIVER JUNCTION — Rebecca Dunbar and her brother still talk about the day in 1983 when she launched herself off the kitchen counter with hands outstretched, intent on hurting her mother.
Dunbar remembers that she was 6, welts already forming on her arms and legs where her mother had just beaten her with a metal spatula for climbing on the counter.
Her teenage brother, Paul Vysocky, intervened by plucking the enraged girl out of the air just before she could connect with their mother, Shirley Vysocky.
The siblings laugh about it now, how the yelling between Becky and her mother, an alcoholic who worked as a housekeeper at Alice Peck Day Hospital, was so loud that someone called the police. It wasn’t the first time Becky’s mother (now deceased) had hit her. Sometimes it was just a slap. But a shoehorn or other object also might be used. And then there were the times Dunbar recalls being left in dangerous situations while her mother went off to party with friends. Their father, George Dunbar, was in and out of prison.
But Rebeccca Dunbar, now 41, sounds a wistful note when she talks about that period of her life — before the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families first separated her from her family, also in 1983.
“Those,” she said, leaning up against her stove and wanting a cigarette, “were the good times.”
During those early years, her brother often seemed to be his sister’s only protector. In 1986, when Becky was 9, he came home from an early stint in jail and was told that, while he’d been away, a man had molested her. Dunbar declined to name the man, who was charged, but not convicted, of sexually assaulting her, according to Dunbar and Vysocky.
“Basically, he did something he shouldn’t have done. To me,” she said. “And I’ll leave it at that.”
Informed that the man who had assaulted his sister was present at a party Vysocky was attending not long after being released from jail, he exploded with violence.
“They didn’t know if he was going to live or die,” said Vysocky, now 50, speaking in a deep and graveled voice. “I beat him with my bare hands.”
It helped set the tone for his adult life.
“I been in and out of institutions for 20 years,” he said. “She had a good childhood until I left.”
Dunbar has been living in an apartment building on Lantern Lane, an unlovely spot in White River Junction hemmed in by railroad tracks, a trucking company, and the convergence of heavy power lines at the substation next door. She has spent years trying to reconnect with the Section 8 housing assistance program and currently pays her rent with a portion of her disability check. At various times in her life, she has turned to food pantries, churches and other programs to get through one more month.
Dunbar, who can recount a lifetime of horrific stories, presents a rough-and-tumble demeanor, delivering fiery monologues on a hair trigger.
“Do I have to flip out for something to happen?” she asked once, angrily talking about her experiences with DCYF. “They have more power than (expletive) God by the looks of it. I mean, come on. (DCYF is) just letting them keep taking people’s kids. (It doesn’t) even go tell the (expletive) parents. It just pisses me off. They don’t know what that does to the kids.
“I do because I’m a (expletive) mental case because of what it put me through. What more do you want? I’m one of their tokens. Like a guinea pig for the (expletive). Once you’re in the system, they (expletive) with you the rest of your life. It shouldn’t go that way.”
Beneath her angry exterior, Dunbar is deeply scarred from the multiple sexual assaults and domestic violence she suffered as a child and an adult. Most occurred after she became a ward of the state and was shuttled from one unstable living situation to another. She has been diagnosed with a variety of disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
If a child welfare agency’s most fundamental responsibility is to provide a basic level of security to the children it removes from their biological families, it clearly failed in Dunbar’s case. And the trauma, violence and dysfunction that have marked her life ever since bear witness to the lasting consequences of that failure.
And, in the case of Dunbar, it raises questions about how long-lasting the damage will prove — how many generations will suffer as a result.
When a child is removed from a home, “the state must be held to a far higher standard than anything the family could provide,” said Moira K. O’Neill, director of the newly created Office of the Child Advocate for New Hampshire, after reading a brief summary of Dunbar’s experiences with the state.
Acknowledging that Dunbar’s experience had been “horrific” and the result of a “failed system,” O’Neill said that it’s nevertheless important to recognize the potential for social services to play a positive role for other vulnerable children and families.
“I think it is fair to say her experience is not unique,” she said. “But I also think it unfair to assume hers is the typical experience.”
Dunbar, of course, can judge the system only from her own experience.
“The system is supposed to be there to protect the kids,” Dunbar said. “But it doesn’t. It protects the system.”
While standing in her apartment this summer, Dunbar talked about the jumbled kaleidoscope of her childhood. She’s lived in so many places that she can’t sort out which came in what year. The chronology may be blurred, but the memories themselves are sharp and clear.
“It’s hard for me to remember especially at that young age. But I do remember the bad things, certain bad things that happened,” she said.
Documenting the separate incidents of abuse that Dunbar suffered as a child is impossible — not just because officials are legally prohibited from discussing them, but also because the official file that Dunbar has a right to access has, for some reason, disappeared (see sidebar below). But what little official record does exist — combined with the medical and psychological afflictions she continues to deal with — leave little doubt that Dunbar suffered multiple instances of abuse after the state of New Hampshire removed her from her mother’s home.
She remembers answering the door while living in an Enfield apartment, finding police who were there to arrest her caregiver on charges related to heroin use. She remembers being alone and screaming from inside an apartment in Hanover that had been locked from the outside, until a neighbor came and alerted authorities.
O’Neill said the majority of foster parents are as they seem on the surface — motivated by a strong desire to help a child in need.
“Her experience is probably not just a problem of evil-doing individuals who volunteer to foster. It is more likely a symptom of a failed system that did not do good background checks, did not do good education and training, did not support well the foster parent, helping with understanding the complicated presentation of a child who has been abused, neglected and plucked out of her family, and did not do good casework with the child — listening, meeting, establishing a trusting relationship.”
When Becky was 9, shortly after her older brother was arrested for assaulting her alleged molester, the state placed her into the home of an aunt and uncle.
Her cousin, Jason Stark, would have been 17 at the time. Dunbar said that the family offered her sympathy for the abuse she’d suffered at her most recent placement. That night, she says, Stark came to her room and sexually assaulted her for the first time.
Dunbar initially declined to publicly name Stark, but after learning that public records indicated it was Stark who victimized her, she confirmed his identity.
“He’s a pretty big-sized boy,” she said. “So he grabs somebody and puts them down; it’s not like they can get away.”
She remembers lying in the bed and listening, night after night, as the creak of the floorboards told her he was coming to her room. She said Stark continued to assault her, multiple times a week, over a period of years.
Dunbar’s experience partly reflects the vulnerability of foster children, who, according to statistics on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, are 10 times more likely to be sexually abused than children living with both biological parents.
“I ran away and I got to my mom’s house,” Dunbar said. “I spoke about it to her, and she had to bring me back to the house because the court papers said that I had to be there. I couldn’t be at my mom’s.”
When she learned that her mother intended to bring her back to her aunt’s, Becky asked her to stay silent.
“So she brought me back,” Dunbar said. “And she didn’t say nothing.”
Three years later, in 1989, Becky, then 12, hatched another plan to get away.
“The only other thing I could think of to get out of the house was to take a baseball bat to Mrs. H, which was my teacher at Indian River (Middle) School,” she said.
The decision was in keeping with Dunbar’s experience that violence was a more reliable recourse than trusting in the care of institutions. One time — Dunbar isn’t certain when it happened — she forced authorities to transfer her away from an abusive foster home by looming over her sleeping guardian with a butcher knife.
“I wasn’t a kid,” she said. “I was trying to be a grown-up as a kid because I had to learn how to live.”
And so when the opportunity presented itself, the pre-teen whacked her teacher several times with a plastic Wiffle-ball bat.
It worked. She was taken out of her aunt’s home and brought to a residential school for foster children, the first of several she would live in.
O’Neill said detecting abuse often depends on a trusting relationship between a child and a state worker.
“A major risk for abuse is isolation — feeling no one cares or is watching,” O’Neill said. “The caseworker has to establish a strong relationship with a child in order to promote a sense of safety and a safety net.”
But Dunbar said the abuse she was suffering should have been clear to the authorities. She recalls reporting it to staff at the home as soon as she was transferred away from Stark and also to a DCYF caseworker. At the time, she said, her mother confirmed that Becky had made a similar report earlier.
Dunbar said the caseworker’s only response was to tell Stark’s parents to keep him away from children.
Stark did not stay away from children. Today, he is listed on the New Hampshire Department of Safety’s public criminal offender registry. It lists 16 convictions from 1990 to 2015, including three in 1998 for aggravated felonious sexual assault (in which the victim was under 13 years of age), and three in 2008 for sexual assault.
Dunbar said she first reported her assault to her DCYF caseworker in 1989.
Studies show that victims of crime, including sexual violence, are more likely to be victimized again.
At one point, Dunbar said, she was living at the Tobey School in Concord. From 1982 to 2009, the state-run program operated out of a large brick building on Fruit Street, where it housed up to 24 students with “significant emotional, behavioral and mental health disabilities” in a dorm-like setting.
Soon after arriving, “I woke up to noise in the room and I, I didn’t move,” Dunbar said. “All I did was peep over my covers. My eyes were open. All I could see was a big thing moving up and down.”
The next morning, a roommate confirmed that she had been abused by a member of the staff.
The roommate, Dunbar and another girl ran away from the school. They headed for the mother of a friend, where they stayed for a few days before going to a party they’d heard about.
Dunbar said that she and her friends were the only girls at the party, and that she was held down and raped by multiple boys before she was allowed to leave.
Over the years, as one after another situation went bad, Dunbar continued to idolize her mother, and made every effort to get back to what had become, to her, the “good old days.”
Once, the kids from her shelter were taken to a Christmas dinner. Dunbar remembers being trained in the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork in an opulent setting. She was dismissive.
“That’s for rich folks. I’m not a rich person, and I weren’t brought up that way.”
While there, Dunbar wondered aloud why so many strange adults were coming in the front door and circulating around the room, as if searching for something.
“You don’t know why they’re here, hon?” a member of the staff replied. “They’re here to adopt you kids.”
Dunbar became enraged.
“I know who my mother is,” she told the staff member. “You ain’t adopting me off.”
It was a mantra that she would repeat, often.
“I didn’t care. You’re gonna sit there and downgrade my mom because she’s an alcoholic?” she recalls telling a family court judge. “At least I went to school. At least I got to eat meat, which was protein. And at least my mom didn’t (expletive) sexually molest me and at least she didn’t beat me 24/7. Only when I deserve it.”
In December 1992, when Dunbar was 14, she tried to shoot herself in the head, but was “stopped by friends who confiscated the gun,” according to medical records that Dunbar provided from her time at Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital.
Dunbar thinks her life would have been a little easier if her father had been around, rather than in prison (in 1998, a Vermont District judge cited the elder Dunbar’s extensive criminal record before imposing the unusually harsh sentence of 10 years to life for robbing a clerk at Hotel Coolidge of $184). She sees him now, sometimes. Though she’s developed large emotional callouses, sometimes, his words still sting.
“He’s said it to me more than once,” she said. “His family is not the people out here. His family are the inmates.”
Still, Dunbar is forgiving.
“The way I see it, maybe I need to understand my father’s ways, too, because he didn’t have a very good childhood neither when he was growing up. So.”
Others at Risk
Establishing systems that eliminate the risk of sexual abuse of foster children may be even more important now because the number of child protection removals is soaring — in part because of the opioid epidemic. Removals more than doubled in just three years, increasing from 312 in 2014 to 688 in 2017, according to a DCYF adequacy and enhancement assessment released by the department earlier this year.
The problems in foster care are not unique to the states of New Hampshire and Vermont, said Jeannette Birge, who has worked with foster care systems around the country and is currently the program director at West Lebanon-based nonprofit Waypoint (formerly Child and Family Services).
In the ’80s and ’90s, when Dunbar was in state custody, she said, the national foster care system provided relatively lax oversight over both foster children and foster families.
“State systems used to be so overwhelmed with understaffing, and not enough foster homes, similar to the situation New Hampshire is in right now,” she said. “If a child came into foster care, they would just place them any place they could find a bed, regardless of whether it was a good match for the child, and regardless of geography.”
Sending children far away from their biological families, their established schools and their social support network made it more traumatic, she said, and made family reunification less likely.
“That was a horrible way to treat children and their parents,” she said.
But, Birge said, states are now shoring up their foster care systems.
Spending tax money on social services remains difficult politically, she said, but even fiscal hawks have been incentivized to support more careful oversight by the high costs of lawsuits that held state agencies accountable for damages suffered in abusive foster homes.
“I cannot imagine how (Dunbar) could have been so abused while in the foster care system, but I assume that it was because no one was checking on her regularly enough,” she said. “Systems didn’t have the capacity to do that. A lot of states had to get sued to get the funding to have that capacity.”
Birge said that, today, groups like Waypoint do a more thorough screening of foster families than was the norm 20 years ago, and they also work to develop trusting relationships with foster children so the children are more able to divulge abuses.
Recent studies suggest that many of the problems Dunbar experienced persist.
In an effort to better understand the need for medical services for child abuse and neglect in New Hampshire, a 2015 assessment of need was produced by an independent agency for a consortium of stakeholders. On its surface, the report found that there are fewer instances of maltreatment of children in New Hampshire than anywhere else in New England — it reports just three cases per 1,000 people, compared with six in Vermont, nine in Connecticut and nearly 15 in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island between 2009 and 2012.
But a closer look suggests a different story.
Though New Hampshire investigated about the same number of reported abuse cases per capita as neighboring states, it was confirming maltreatment in far fewer cases.
While 30 percent or more of the abuse investigations turned up evidence of maltreatment in Maine, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the number was 12 percent in New Hampshire in 2009, and just 7 percent in 2012. The number was 5.6 percent in 2015, and 5.5 percent in 2016, according to more recent data provided by DHHS spokesman Jake Leon.
The authors of the 2015 assessment found those low rates of substantiation to be problematic.
“Existing data suggests that New Hampshire is not identifying or categorizing children as victims of maltreatment in a way that is consistent with other states,” they wrote. The authors recommended that the issue “be examined further to be sure that maltreated children are being appropriately identified and served.”
Leon said the historically low rates of substantiation are due to state laws and legal interpretations that created a more narrow definition of child abuse and neglect than exists in neighboring states. Recently, he said, DHHS supported changes to the law that broaden those definitions, and also allow the state to permanently retain records of abuse and neglect.
“Understanding the trauma history of our families allows us to better work with those families to ensure the safety and well-being of the children of this generation,” Leon said. He credited the change in state law with a significant jump in substantiation rates, from 5.5 percent in 2016 to 8.3 percent in 2017.
State Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover, whose legislative efforts often focus on issues related to social services and child protection, said she feels like DHHS has made progress since Dunbar was in its custody in the ’80s and ’90s, but the agency struggles from chronic underfunding.
Until recently, she said, “the caseworkers in Concord were having caseloads of 40, 50, 60 cases, and the national norm is like 20 or 25.”
If the state had more resources, it could do a better job, she said.
“We have a shortage of foster parents. We have caseworkers that are overworked, too. We’re hoping that we can really start making strides toward more accountability, more staffing, lower caseloads, all of those things that create the situation,” she said.
In June, lawmakers approved a large funding increase for the state’s child welfare apparatus — a mix of $2.5 million in federal and state funds will allow for the creation of 31 new positions, including 17 child protection social workers.
Nordgren said the funding is not wholly adequate to meet the demand, but that it should bring the caseload down to 30 per worker, and also provide support staff so caseworkers can focus on families rather than paperwork. The bill also slots an additional $500,000 to fund foster care rates.
Though the state has failed to maintain Dunbar’s file, medical records support many of her claims. In 1995, when Dunbar was 17 and working at Burger King in Lebanon, she was hospitalized at New Hampshire Hospital.
She told staff there that she’d been depressed since age 9, and experienced nightmares and flashbacks from sexual and physical abuse that took place from the age of 6 until she was 15, according to medical records provided by Dunbar. At 17, she had been living with a 33-year-old boyfriend for four months, and cut her arm “to get his attention,” she said.
While she was there, her brother, Paul Vysocky, showed up and tried to take her out of the hospital.
“She broke down the door of the psychiatric unit and ran off,” according to the report.
In July of that year, Dunbar suffered a miscarriage and in December, she was readmitted to the hospital, after first threatening her boyfriend with a butcher knife, and then holding the knife to her own abdomen. She had symptoms of PTSD and chronic depression.
O’Neill said the public should recognize the state’s unique potential to help children suffering abuse, even while acknowledging problems.
“It is important to present a balanced picture of the institution and the current crisis we face. Have there been bad people, events and tragedies? Absolutely. Becky seems to be an example of everything that can go wrong,” said O’Neill.
“But we have to look at these situations with a broader lens and purpose. If the institution is vilified, who would want to be a part of it? Where do we get good foster parents?”
O’Neill said Dunbar’s experiences can be a call to action — but action that is constructive, not destructive.
“We have to balance the tragedies with what the department is doing to improve the situation. We have to honor people like Becky by creating a system improved upon by the mistakes made in her life,” O’Neill said. “It is my job to root out the system failures so we can see the path forward, what needs to be fixed.”
The 17-year-old Dunbar’s tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend was setting a tone that would continue beyond adolescence.
By the time Dunbar aged out of the foster care system, she was already firmly on a path dictated by the scars of her repeated childhood abuse. Authorities were to be feared. Abuse was to be expected. Violence was the best defense.
As an adult, she was finally free of the state-mandated living situations that had so often placed her in harm’s way.
But she had been raised as a victim.
And she was about to find that, as an adult, the victimization would not end.
What Becky lost: Records were accidentally destroyed by the state
[W]HITE RIVER JUNCTION — After being approached by Rebecca Dunbar and an administrator from a women’s advocacy group, the Valley News attempted to verify various details of her life.
Of particular interest were Dunbar’s assertions that the state Department of Health and Human Services had made egregious errors that exposed her to dangers greater than those she faced in the family home she was removed from.
According to Dunbar, the state placed her in multiple dangerous settings, including the one where she said she was sexually assaulted for a three-year period by her cousin, Jason Stark. She also says that she and her mother reported the abuse to the state, but that officials failed to act. In an effort to verify those claims, beginning in early November 2017, the Valley News worked with Dunbar to access her personal records with DCYF Child Protective Services.
According to New Hampshire law, DHHS, “shall provide access to the case records” to the person who the records are about. It is also statutorily required to keep juvenile justice files, in part because they might be helpful in the solving of a crime, such as sexual assault.
State officials first responded to Dunbar’s request by saying they needed a written request, which was submitted in December. In January, they reported that the case file had been accidentally destroyed.
“The Department is required by law to retain certain records and also to destroy certain file types after a given period of time,” wrote Jake Leon, the DHHS communications director. “The files in question should have been kept.”
In response to a set of follow-up questions about the circumstances of the files’ destruction, Leon promised a speedy response. But in fact, it took eight months, more than 20 inquiries, and an appeal to DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers before Leon responded. He said that Dunbar’s juvenile justice record, which was closed in 1994 and has rested in the state archive building, was mistakenly placed in a box of files that was scheduled to be destroyed.
Dunbar said her caseworker at DHHS told her as recently as January of 2018 that the caseworker had her records. But Leon said they were shredded by a contracted state vendor shortly after the state issued a June 8, 2017, notification that the box was to be destroyed.
Leon was unable to provide any concrete information about how often the state illegally destroys the files of foster children.
“Although checks into the system are built into this process, the possibility of human error does exist,” he said.
Moira O’Neill, director of the New Hampshire Office of the Child Advocate, called the loss of files a “tragedy,” and said that “record retention is critical in child welfare.”
Her office typically deals with more current cases, involving digital records, and so, she said, she has not encountered similar cases. Typically, she said, “people request and records are made available.”
Though some DHHS caseworkers have worked with Dunbar and are familiar with her file, Leon also turned down a request for an interview with those caseworkers “due to State and federal law requirements related to the confidentiality of DHHS clients.” Even with Dunbar’s permission, DHHS was unwilling to facilitate an interview because, Leon said, “records must be kept confidential in order to protect the confidentiality of all parties involved in a particular matter.”
Dunbar said the files included records of her efforts to report Stark, and other documentation of instances in which she was harmed while in the care of the state.
“That’s what’s written in the paperwork that they won’t give me,” she said. “And that’s why they don’t want me to get it because they know if I get it the right person is going to get it and see it and I could get them in a lot of trouble.”
“This was an unfortunate and unintentional mistake,” Leon said. “Multiple agencies are involved in the State’s archiving and destruction process, and files are stored for years before they are scheduled to be destroyed. It is highly unlikely that one individual would be able to intentionally destroy a file.”
Without offering specifics, Leon said the state had made an effort to understand why the mistake happened and “ensure and strengthen checks” to prevent similar mistakes.
He noted that more modern, digital files are less prone to being accidentally destroyed.
Leon did not respond to requests for an interview with Commissioner Meyers.
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