9 former employees sue Topeka juvenile facility
The Associated Press
TOPEKA, Kan. - A closed juvenile center in Topeka has been sued for discrimination by nine former employees.
In the federal lawsuit, the former employees of Forbes Juvenile Attention Center allege that they were subjected to racially insensitive jokes, intimidation and disparities in job evaluations.
The nine employees are seeking $500,000 in damages.
Scott Henricks, an official with center's parent company said the company wouldn't comment because it didn't know about the lawsuit.
The Topeka Capital-Journal reported last year that a 12-year-old resident alleged he was repeatedly raped because of insufficient staffing and room checks at the center. The company settled that lawsuit out of court in late November.
The center closed a few weeks after the story was reported.
Information from: The Topeka Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com
Youth detention center in 'chaos'
Created October 17, 2009 at 9:30pm
Updated October 18, 2009 at 1:15am
Insufficient staff numbers and inadequate room checks by a Topeka juvenile residential center opened the door for a 12-year-old boy to be repeatedly raped by his roommate over three days in January 2008, a civil lawsuit claims.
"The rape, sodomy, sexual assault and sexual battery could not have happened if the boys or men were properly supervised," reads the suit.
The suit, filed last year in Shawnee County District Court against the owners of Forbes Juvenile Attention Facility, isn't the only place to find concerns about the welfare of residents of the facility.
Other issues related to the treatment of residents have been raised in inspection reports, internal memos and the words of former FJAC workers. Allegations of racial discrimination and questions about how FJAC administrators notify authorities of alleged abuse also have been raised.
The problems, former staffers say, allowed sexual misconduct to go unnoticed.
"The last couple months before I left, it was chaos," said Clarence Tyson, a shift supervisor who resigned in late 2008 after seven years at FJAC.
The allegations are just that -- allegations, the FJAC administration said. Terry Campbell, executive vice president for Clarence M. Kelley Juvenile Justice Resources, which owns FJAC, said a handful of unhappy workers have already made similar claims to other governmental agencies.
"I'm sure SRS has received them, KDHE has received them, JJA has received them, the governor has probably received them," Campbell said. "It's because we've got disgruntled staff, former employees. They're not the majority of the professional staff that we have."
Campbell said there have been only six reports of sexual misconduct at FJAC since 2007, and only two were sexual assaults.
FJAC, located at Forbes Field at 6700 S.W. Topeka Blvd., is a privately run youth residential center, a nonsecure group home for male juvenile offenders that houses up to 56 youths ages 12 to 17. The offenders sent to FJAC aren't the most dangerous in the juvenile system, thus one reason why it isn't a locked facility.
Since a new administration took over at FJAC in late 2007, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has investigated 20 complaints there. That is more than any of the 29 similar facilities contracting with the state except for one -- Camelot Lakeside in Goddard, which has had 26 such complaints. Many of the complaints against FJAC allege insufficient staffing led to the incidents.
And at least six workers -- five former and one current -- have filed state or federal discrimination suits in 2009. In addition to alleging black workers were treated differently, some of the suits say employees feared retaliation for reporting alleged abuse to authorities as required by regulations and law.
Campbell points out most allegations by the former employees and allegations investigated by KDHE couldn't be substantiated.
Ward Loyd, chairman of the Kansas Advisory Group on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, said he hadn't heard of the allegations but said "where's there's smoke, there's usually fire."
"It's certainly unfortunate to hear that we've got these types of allegations with any Kansas facility," he said. "The whole issue with having them placed in these kinds of facilities is to provide for their needs, not to complicate them."
The 12-year-old plaintiff in the current civil suit against FJAC was referred to the facility in late 2007 or early 2008 by case manager Kenyetta Byrd. Soon after, an FJAC worker contacted Byrd concerned about the boy's small size. According to a February 2008 report by the Juvenile Justice Authority's inspector general on the incident, the caller told Byrd the boy would be "eaten alive."
"They didn't even have clothes small enough to fit him," said Toni Wash, a drug and alcohol counselor who worked at FJAC from late 2007 to late 2008. "Everyone was asking why he was there."
Campbell said he wouldn't comment on any incident under litigation. In addition to the civil case against Kelley Juvenile Detention Services, the roommate suspected of raping the 12-year-old is facing criminal sodomy charges in juvenile court.
Immediately after Byrd got the alarming call from the FJAC worker, another case coordinator called and told her to disregard the previous caller. The boy was then placed at FJAC.
The alleged rape and sodomy occurred from Jan. 22 to Jan. 24, 2008, and as soon as FJAC learned about it, officials there contacted authorities. The lawsuit claims FJAC workers didn't conduct room checks every 15 minutes as their policy mandated. The inspector general's report says room-check logs contained blanket statements about the whole floor without specific mention of individual room checks.
In an e-mail to Campbell on Feb. 14, 2008, Kelley administrator Scott Henricks conceded some fault.
"The cause of the alleged incident can partially be attributed to staff error," he wrote.
In its court response, however, FJAC flatly denied the allegations of improper staff work.
JJA commissioner Russ Jennings said:, "Is there a concern that staff aren't checking rooms regularly? Yes, there certainly is."
Mona Brown, a floor staffer for more than a year until she was fired in January, said she wasn't surprised something happened.
"The staff ratio just wasn't there," she said. "That is the thing that sets it up for things to happen."
The alleged rape isn't the only incident in which inadequate supervision has been an issue at FJAC.
A KDHE investigatory report from March 19, 2009, chronicled how a resident stole a worker's cell phone and her car after FJAC staff members left him in a visitation room alone with instructions to stay put.
After meeting for 30 minutes and then going to their offices for another 20 minutes, staff members returned to the room to find the boy gone.
A security video would later show him walking up and down the halls on both floors. The report stated the boy roamed the halls for "approximately one hour and was able to steal a teacher's cell phone and car keys and then exit the building and steal a car without being noticed or missed."
"There was not adequate staff to supervise youth at all times," the report said.
The incident was reported to Metropolitan Topeka Airport Authority police, but it wasn't immediately reported to KDHE, as required by FJAC's own policies. It was two weeks before KDHE was notified.
Campbell said it was important to remember residents aren't locked up at FJAC.
"One takes off, one steals a car, and the issue we have is why didn't we tell KDHE about that at the time?" he asked. "Well, we should have (notified KDHE), but I think our primary concern is getting the police notified, making sure the kid is all right and make sure no one gets hurt."
It wasn't the first time KDHE, which shares oversight responsibilities with the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, heard of a such problem.
KDHE has received five complaints ranging from sexual activity between the boys to runaway youths, all of them blamed on a lack of staffing. Three of the complaints were unfounded, KDHE said.
But a Jan. 14, 2009, investigative report found evidence of inadequate staffing. The visit to FJAC was prompted by allegations another 12-year-old -- not the boy in the lawsuit -- was sodomized by his roommate. The KDHE report stated staff ratios were in compliance at the time of the incident, but a review of the previous year's records by the agency showed 14 shifts weren't staffed properly.
The report said FJAC administrator Jeff Sampson stated he had hired six to seven new employees and was at that time fully staffed.
KDHE's findings were conservative, said Sue Mayhan, who was the second-shift supervisor from October 2008 through May 2009.
"In the eight months I was there, we might have had adequate staffing three months," she said.
Clarence Tyson, a first-shift supervisor who left in late 2008 after seven years at FJAC, said employees were "always asking about staffing."
"Sometimes they'd have 14 or 15 kids on a unit and only one staff," he said.
KDHE requires facilities like FJAC to have at least one staff member for every seven residents during waking hours and one employee for every 10 at night.
In a Nov. 2, 2008, memo, floor staffer Alan Barr wrote to Sampson, "I continue to be on the wing constantly by myself, and I feel my safety is in question."
Campbell wouldn't comment on specific incidents but said KDHE's lack of findings on most of the claims was vindication. He said any problems with staffing were most likely the cause of employees calling in sick, and any issues were immediately addressed.
He said maintaining a consistent staff can be difficult in a facility with juvenile offenders. Since 2007, the facility, which ranges from 40 to 60 workers, has employed 111 people.
Jennings said in his experience running a juvenile detention center in western Kansas, "There's a multitude of issues in terms of recruitment, retention and trainability of employees."
How the facility responded when things did happen is the source of former employees' complaints to KDHE and the Kansas Human Rights Commission.
'Tom, Dick and Harry'
Former employees' statements, complaints to KDHE and claims in discrimination filings allege staff members were routinely discouraged by Sampson from reporting alleged abuse or misconduct to authorities.
Mayhan said Sampson questioned her in November 2008 when she heard an allegation of sodomy and called the MTAA police and other authorities.
"He said it was stuff like that that can get a facility closed down," she said. "He told me I call MTAA too much and that KDHE keeps getting the reports on us and that it's not good for us."
Mayhan said Sampson later told her and other staff members he was tired of having SRS and KDHE investigating "for every Tom, Dick and Harry thing."
Campbell said he wouldn't comment on any personnel matters. He said allegations of employees being discouraged from reporting incidents have appeared in at least some of the discrimination cases filed with KHRC.
Wash said she experienced the same roadblock when she reported a possible case of sexual misconduct involving a resident in November 2008. After pushing the incident up the chain of command and getting nowhere for weeks, she said, she got a meeting with Sampson.
Wash said Sampson told her he hadn't heard anything about the incident. Soon after, she said, she began to get written up on a weekly basis.
She believed it was an effort to build a case for firing her, which happened in December 2008.
Campbell said he wouldn't go into specifics but said Wash wasn't fired for pushing to report the incident. He also said there was an investigation by SRS and MTAA police and that Wash was involved in it.
Wash said she was never contacted by anyone investigating the incident.
The Kansas Department of Labor, in determining whether Wash should get unemployment benefits, said there wasn't enough evidence to show her "alleged actions were a violation of a duty."
Months later, in an investigative document dated March 19, KDHE asked about allegations that staff members didn't do anything about an alleged sexual misconduct between two residents. Sampson told the agency: "He had checked into the incident and was not able to verify that the incident did occur. He did separate the boys at the time."
'That's my call'
In another incident in April 2008, Tyson heard allegations a floor staff member was crawling into bed with residents in the morning. He told the staff and residents to write memos.
"Resident (unnamed) said that Mr. K comes into their room and lays in the bed with them to wake them up," reads one of the memos dated April 9, 2008. "Resident said that he grabbed his toes while he was in the bed."
Tyson said he placed the documents in the mailboxes of the case worker, building supervisor and Sampson.
A few days later, Sampson came to the floor and asked the kids what happened, said floor staffer Brown. She said the residents told Sampson they didn't want the staffer fired. Brown said Sampson told the floor's staff and residents he wouldn't fire the employee and that no one was to call SRS.
"He said, 'That's my call,' " she said.
In addition to the requirement in JJA's provider handbook and in FJAC's own operations manual to report such incidents, it also says the administration should never "interfere or otherwise attempt to alter the report of an abuse/neglect claim made by an employee of the facility."
Interference in reporting such an incident is also a class B misdemeanor under Kansas statutes.
That is why Campbell said FJAC never discouraged reporting.
Tyson said a few weeks went by after the memos were sent to Sampson and the staffer was still on the floor.
"I thought something should happen, maybe a suspension with pay until the veracity was checked out," he said. "It struck everyone as odd that he was still around."
Tyson said the staffer eventually was made an intern case worker for a few weeks before he left the facility.
Campbell said FJAC takes very seriously its obligation to report abuse. He said he was sure any staff member who felt a youth was being harmed would report it to the authorities, "and if they don't, they're negligent." But he also laid out the company's multilayered policy for reporting incidents.
"Staff should be reporting it, first of all, to their supervisor and the administrator, and if they don't feel it's being addressed then they should report it to our corporate compliance officer," Campbell said. "If they're not satisfied then, then they can always go to outside agencies."
He said employees would only face possible reprimand for reporting out of turn.
Rep. Pat Colloton, R-Leawood, chairwoman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, said that isn't how the law reads.
"It sounds like they've got a horrible policy in place that goes against the SRS intent," she said.
JJA commissioner Jennings said it isn't unreasonable for a facility to have a policy that requires the staff to report alleged abuse to superiors first so they can try to address the problem immediately. But that policy shouldn't be used as "a process of screening of what is reported or not."
"Really an employer shouldn't do anything that dissuades an employee from doing their statutory requirement to report alleged abuse," he said.
That being said, Jenning said, FJAC and other contractors "are in a position that they are able to ensure the environment is healthy and safe."
Campbell reiterated that most of the allegations haven't been substantiated by any state agency.
"Allegations can be made by people that maybe aren't the happiest with their employers," he said. "We're very concerned by every allegation. That's why we want to look into them."
James Carlson can be reached at (785) 295-1186 or firstname.lastname@example.org.