Lawsuit: DCYF confirmed sexual misconduct at her group home. Then abandoned her.
In early 1993, a tip led the Concord police to a hotel, where they found a 16-year-old girl who said she’d been held there for about a week, enduring multiple rapes, by the owner of her state-sanctioned group home in Deerfield, according to a court record.
The state removed her and the other girls it had placed there, temporarily closed the home, and in media reports at the time, called the victim’s allegations of sexual misconduct founded. The home’s owner, Peter Tsetsilas, pleaded guilty in 1994 to child endangerment and interference of custody but was not charged with rape or sexual assault, according to court records.
The victim says state child protection workers never spoke with her about her alleged abuse, offered her counseling, did a pregnancy test, or screened her for sexually transmitted diseases. Kristy Gesse, now 47 and living in Florida with her husband and kids, says she received neither an apology nor sympathy.
Gesse was not among the hundreds of children the state now acknowledges it failed to protect from abuse at the Youth Development Center. But those victims’ accounts of torture and rape, accounts Gesse says she heard at the time, have led her to join them in suing the Department of Health and Human Services and the Division for Children, Youth, and Families.
Gesse filed her lawsuit against both state agencies in Merrimack County Superior Court in January under the pseudonym Jane Doe #73. She has decided now to be named.
In an interview with the Bulletin, Gesse said she’s come to believe that DCYF officials knew they were putting children in their care at risk decades before they acknowledged doing so by opening up a $100 million settlement fund in January for YDC victims. Gesse likely won’t be eligible because she was not detained or committed for delinquency issues, said Michael Garrity, spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, which is overseeing the claims process.
Gesse was removed from her home for safety concerns.
“Here’s why I’m so angry and I decided to rip this Jane Doe off of my case,” Gesse said. “It’s because the state keeps saying, ‘We didn’t know, we didn’t know.’ You didn’t know until you knew. And then when you knew, you did nothing. Nothing for me. Nothing for any of these other kids. Nothing. And they’re making us victims all over again.”
Gesse’s lawyer, David Vicinanzo, said as many as 300 of his 1,100 clients who allege physical and sexual abuse while in state care are also ineligible for the fund. Garrity said individuals who are unsure about their eligibility can file a claim to find out.
Gesse said she won’t. She wants the state to answer her allegations publicly, in court.
So far a minority of victims appear to have sought a settlement.
In the fund’s first three months, the state received 38 applications: 22 alleging sexual and physical abuse, 11 alleging sexual abuse, and five reporting physical abuse, according to an April report from the fund’s administrator, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick. That number is now over 50, according to Garrity.
The state has made two payments, one for $170,000 prior to that report and one for $1.5 million in May. The state has provided no details about the claims; $1.5 million is the maximum payment for claims involving sexual and physical abuse.
Vicinanzo has described the fund, which is taking claims until Dec. 31, 2024, differently, saying it disregards victims by capping compensation at amounts far lower than what a jury would award. Advocates for sexual assault victims and others have agreed.
Similar to other lawsuits Vicinanzo has brought for clients, Gesse alleges the state breached its duty to her by failing to adequately hire, train, and supervise the people and facilities it contracted with to protect children in its care.
The lawsuit seeks a jury trial but no specified damages. Gesse said she wants the state to acknowledge publicly that it failed her, as well as money so she can resume the counseling she says she can no longer afford.
Help, and then a new nightmare
Gesse was placed in her first group home, The Chase Home in Portsmouth, her freshman year after telling her school counselor she was so afraid of her stepfather’s latest threats of abuse that she wasn’t going home. She said the emotional and physical abuse, which the lawsuit says included sticks, belts, and cords, had been going on for years.
“I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Gesse said. “Physically, I wasn’t capable of fighting him. So I just forced somebody to help me. Or what I thought was helping me.”
The Chase Home was a positive, therapeutic experience, Gesse said. But she left after a few months to live with her stepsister in Colorado. That didn’t go well. Gesse was a high school freshman living in an unknown place, missing her friends. She said she bristled at her stepsister’s rules, which she now recognizes were intended to help her.
“I hated my stepsister for trying to, like, control me and take care of me,” Gesse said. “And I was so prickly at that time, too. I didn’t want somebody to love me. It was just really hard for me to accept that.”
Gesse returned to New Hampshire within the year and spent the summer with friends’ families. The Division for Child and Family Services, now called DCYF, found her after she didn’t register for school and was deemed a runaway, and placed her at Saddleback Mountain Retreat, a small group home for girls 6 to 18 in rural Deerfield owned by Peter and Beverly Tsetsilas and licensed by the state. They lived onsite, in the same house as the six girls there when Gesse was.
Gesse expected a repeat of her positive experience at The Chase Home. It was the opposite, she said.
Her lawsuit alleges that Peter Tsetsilas, now dead, began assaulting her a few months after her arrival. Gesse said he groomed her with special outings and gave her drugs and alcohol before raping her, to “relax” her. The abuse occurred in the home, where the girls lived in the basement, and off the property, she said.
Gesse said Tsetsilas raped her repeatedly, sometimes several times a day, and once while taking her to the hospital after her appendix ruptured.
“I’m screaming and in pain,” Gesse said. “That was the first assault that was really kind of violent because I was not on drugs. I was trying to make him stop. I was struggling. I was in and out of consciousness. I couldn’t even believe it was happening.”
A rape victim’s fear of YDC
Gesse said she didn’t report any of the physical and sexual abuse, which she alleges in her lawsuit happened more than 100 times, because Tsetsilas had told her if she did, she’d be sent to YDC. She had heard kids describe brutal physical and sexual abuse and torture while at YDC, according to her lawsuit. She said Tsetsilas leveraged her fear to silence her.
“Abuse was not the word used. It was, ‘Kids are being tortured and brutalized over there,’” Gesse said, recalling the accounts she heard at the time. “So for me, I was like, ‘Well, I guess it could be worse.’ That’s always what’s in your mind, right? Not that what you’re going through isn’t bad, but it could be worse.”
The lawsuit alleges Beverly Tsetsilas, Peter’s wife, who is also dead, suspected the abuse and confronted her husband. Peter Tsetsilas’ response was to put Gesse in a Concord hotel and stage her disappearance as a runaway until she turned 18 and was no longer under state supervision, according to the lawsuit.
It alleges Tsetsilas beat and raped her, sometimes several times a day. According to the lawsuit, he held a pillow over her face to stifle her cries. Gesse said she was afraid he would kill her and hide her body; she said she was too frightened and helpless to survive if she escaped.
Someone called the Concord police after becoming concerned about seeing a man in his 50s frequently visiting a young girl at the hotel, the lawsuit said.
Gesse remembers hearing a knock on the door and being terrified to open it, fearful that she’d be moved from Saddleback Mountain Retreat to YDC. The police reported the incident to DCYS.
In April 1993, the Concord Monitor reported that a DCYS official had called the allegations of sexual misconduct “founded.” The Associated Press confirmed the statement in its own story the following day.
Gesse said she was moved to a new group home in Dover until she turned 18. Peter Tsetsilas resigned and had to move out, according to media reports at the time. Saddleback Mountain Retreat remained closed while the state investigated Gesse’s allegations.
“DCYS is going to have to re-evaluate the facility and see if (Saddleback Mountain Retreat’s directors) have made sufficient changes to allow us to go back to using the place,” Robert Pidgeon, DCYS deputy director, told the Union Leader in March 1993.
The home reopened four months later, on June 1, but closed again June 22, after a director resigned, according to a Union Leader report. The state and director declined to provide the details. It is no longer in operation.
The Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the Department of Health and Human Services against the lawsuit, has not filed a response in court and declined to comment on Gesse’s case. The office urges victims who are eligible for the settlement fund to use it.
“We are pleased the settlement fund process is working for victims,” Attorney General John Formella said in a statement. “We continue to believe that the YDC settlement fund provides a meaningful victim-centered, trauma-informed alternative for those seeking to avoid lengthy and unpleasant litigation.”