CONCORD, N.H. – Lawyers for two young sisters who were sexually abused by their parents while in foster care deserve 40 percent of the $6.75 million settlement they reached with New Hampshire's child protection agency, a judge ruled Friday.
That amounts to $2.7 million for attorney Rus Rilee and two colleagues who have spent four years representing the girls and their grandparents, forgoing other clients and earning no income for several years. Judge Gillian Abramson said the lawyers deserve more than the usual 25 percent fee because their work led to greater public accountability in such cases and because the grandparents strongly agreed with the higher amount.
"Public policy and the general welfare of children are advanced by the willingness of attorneys to take on these challenging cases," she wrote. "Attorneys should not be discouraged from undertaking such cases, and exemplary legal representation ought to have some assurance of a just fee."
The grandparents sued the Division for Children, Youth and Families in 2016 alleging the biological parents subjected their daughters to "horrific" abuse during unsupervised visits in 2013 when police were investigating reports that they had molested other children at a homeless shelter. Under the settlement reached this month, the state agreed to pay $6.25 million to the girls, now ages 8 and 5, and $500,000 to the grandparents who adopted them.
At a hearing on the attorneys' fees, the grandparents "passionately praised their attorneys" for being available to them around the clock and for setting up plans to ensure the girls are protected "financially and emotionally" for the next 65 years, Abramson said.
More broadly, she also said the lawyers successfully challenged the status quo of secrecy in child abuse cases, resulting in a ruling that parents can waive some confidentiality provisions to hold the state accountable.
"The court agrees with plaintiffs' counsel that this matter is profoundly different from a typical personal injury case, given the groundbreaking reform they have achieved for clients by changing the law itself," she said.
The parents pleaded guilty to child pornography and sexually abusing the girls and are serving 25 years to life in prison. The state agency, meanwhile, is engaged in a broad transformation involving new leadership, additional resources and revised policies.
This story has been corrected to show that the girls will receive $6.25 million, not $6.5 million.