‘Nobody listened’: Olivia Atkocaitis speaks out about the abuse she endured as a child and why she’s suing N.H.
By Amanda Gokee
CONCORD, N.H. —The 8-by-8 basement room where Olivia Atkocaitis was confined for much of her childhood only got worse as time went on. She watched as curtains over one of the basement windows were replaced with chicken wire, the bed she slept on removed as a punishment, the door locked from the outside and alarmed.
For Olivia, it felt like captivity. Her older brother Kaleb called it a jail cell. And those with the power to free her did not, both siblings said.
It started in 2004, when Olivia was adopted from China as a 14-month-old by a New Boston family that already had three biological children: Nick, Kaleb, and Rose. Kaleb, who was 8 at the time, said the adoption was confusing to the kids because their parents were already allegedly abusing them.
In 2011, when he was 15, Kaleb reached a breaking point. After a fight with his father, he ran away from home and reported his parents to New Boston police for abusing him and Olivia. In a 23-page interview with police, he told them Olivia was locked in a basement room for “a few hours to weeks” and that their mom had hit Olivia in the face “with closed and open fists” and had also pushed her down the stairs.
Police came to the house and documented Olivia’s living conditions in a four-page report, which was enough to lead the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families to schedule subsequent interviews with Olivia. Still, they did not remove her from the home.
“Mr. and Mrs. Atkocaitis admitted that Olivia is put in the room when she does something wrong,” the report read. Diane Anstey, a case worker with DCYF, “did not feel that what she has observed came to the level of taking Olivia from the residence.”
Kaleb said they never did anything about his complaints of abuse. The Globe’s review of 39 pages of New Boston police documents from 2011 found that the police and DCYF response focused on Olivia, after Kaleb’s parents told police that he was “very violent” and “known to lie.”
After talking to police, Kaleb said he went to live with a friend’s family, but no one came for Olivia. She remained with Thomas and Denise Atkocaitis for another seven years.
“Even after I ran away from home and contacted the police about it, and they went to the house and took pictures of the place and definitely knew what was going on — even at that point, (my parents) still got off,” he told the Globe. “That confuses me. It boggles my mind.”
Olivia, who is now 19, is suing the state agencies involved, local law enforcement, and the Massachusetts adoption agency Wide Horizons for Children, arguing they were responsible for bringing her from China and abandoning her “to the horrors that ensued.” The lawsuit, filed in Merrimack Superior Court, includes the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, the Division for Children, Youth and Families, the local Goffstown school district, the town of New Boston and its police department, and it names several individuals who worked at those places as well as Olivia’s adoptive parents.
“The state failed me,” Olivia told the Globe. “I was always in pain. I was always nervous. I was always anxious. I was in a constant state of panic.”
Adoption approved, despite allegations of abuse
The lawsuit alleges that problems in the Atkocaitis family began before Olivia was adopted. In February 2003, a social worker with Wide Horizons, the adoption agency, visited the Atkocaitis home where the three biological children told her their father Thomas Atkocaitis had “struck them, brutally” with a belt, according to the lawsuit. Wide Horizons informed DCYF, which did not investigate the incident, but approved Olivia’s placement with the family in March 2003, according to the suit.
Olivia’s lawyer, Mike Lewis, is starting a mediation process with the state, Wide Horizons, the town of New Boston, the New Boston police, and the school district to try to settle the case. Mediation is scheduled to start on June 5.
An attorney for Wide Horizons did not return a request for comment on this story. Neither did Thomas and Denise Atkocaitis. Two of their biological children, Nick and Rose, also declined to comment when reached by the Globe. Nick told the Globe it was because of the highly emotional nature of the story.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Division for Children, Youth and Families directed the Globe’s request for comment to the Department of Justice because it’s the subject of active litigation.
“At this point we are currently in the process of reviewing this matter, including reviewing information being presented to us by the plaintiff,” said Mike Garrity, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice in a written statement. “With this litigation still ongoing we would refrain from any comment beyond our arguments in, and filed with, the court.”
A review of court documents showed arguments had not been filed in the case, and Lewis said he doesn’t expect there will be since the state has joined the mediation process.
An attorney for the school district filed a response with the court on March 3, in which they said that Olivia’s parents homeschooled her and that the school district did nothing wrong and has no responsibility for what happened to Olivia. The document requests a trial by jury.
Michael Courtney is town counsel for New Boston, an attorney representing New Boston and the New Boston police. “It is important to note that it was, in fact, the investigation conducted by Chief (James) Brace, Sergeant (Stephen) Case, and other members of the New Boston Police Department, which ultimately led to the removal of the plaintiff from the home and conditions her adopted parents subjected her to,” Courtney said in a written statement.
He credits the New Boston Police Department for filing felony level charges against Thomas and Denise Atkocaitis and arresting them in 2018. He said the town denies failing to protect Olivia.
A brave escape
Olivia escaped the New Boston home in 2018 by digging her way out of the basement room and leaving behind a suicide note. She said the psychological and physical abuse she had endured made it hard to believe she could go on living.
Thomas Atkocaitis called the police after he realized Olivia had escaped through a hole in the basement drywall, according to a 2018 affidavit. It wasn’t until the next afternoon that the police found Olivia on the town line near the neighboring town of Mount Vernon. When interviewed at a child advocacy center, Olivia said she had “lost it” after long periods of isolation in the basement room over that summer.
She recalled the police bringing her back home after a 2015 attempt to run away. That didn’t happen in 2018, when she told them she would kill herself before going back to the home. She ended up at a psychiatric ward for a month before entering foster care.
The police then brought charges regarding Olivia’s abuse against Thomas and Denise Atkocaitis: criminal restraint, kidnapping, and endangering the welfare of a child. Denise Atkocaitis pleaded guilty of felony criminal restraint and served no time. Prosecutors dropped the charges related to child endangerment and accessory to criminal restraint. Thomas Atkocaitis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment and served six months in Hillsborough County Jail.
Lewis said the state terminated their parental rights on the grounds of longstanding abuse and neglect. But the responsibility for what happened to Olivia wasn’t theirs alone, Lewis and Olivia argue.
“This is a person who was deeply, deeply injured by the state of New Hampshire, and by systems of protection,” Lewis said. “It either involves an entire community not paying attention to what was happening to a child, or worse, knowing what was happening to the child and not knowing how to respond to it.”
He argues that Olivia’s case is part of a broader failure of state agencies charged with protecting vulnerable children from abuse and neglecting to do so. Hundreds of children were allegedly abused at the Sununu Youth Services Center, which was charged with their rehabilitation. Child protective services have faced criticism of failing to protect Harmony Montgomery, a 5-year-old girl allegedly murdered by her father after being placed in his care by the state. Several other children have died while under the watch of DCYF in recent years, with one as recent as January.
Olivia said she wants those responsible to be held accountable. “It’s not fine. I’m not fine,” she said. “Nobody asked those questions. Nobody cared. Nobody listened.”
A childhood spent ‘literally locked in a jail cell’
Olivia recalled abuse, neglect, being called terrible names, and told stories about China that she now knows to be false. The lawsuit alleges that Olivia was starved, beaten, and denied an education. It alleges that Olivia was handcuffed in the basement, forced to eat her own vomit, and made to defecate in a bucket in the basement room.
Her brother Kaleb called it torture and enslavement. “She was literally locked in a jail cell for her entire childhood,” he said. He’s not part of Olivia’s lawsuit and his parents weren’t charged for abusing him.
What was most distressing, he said, was that people knew and didn’t do anything. His parents had friends who were at the house “often,” and the family went to church. In 2016, he moved to Oregon to get some distance from his childhood. He still lives there and works as a plumber.
Olivia is now a sophomore at Plymouth State University where she’s studying psychology. She likes her classes, and goes snowboarding for fun. She wants to get her PhD and research developmental trauma, a concept in psychology that has helped her make sense of her own life. Or she might become a lawyer.
Her brother has no doubt she will. He said she’s smart and has an iron will. “Somehow she has been able to make a life for herself through this mess,” he said.