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Former Hanna Boys Center employees claim retaliation, age discrimination in trio of lawsuits

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The Hanna Boys Center has been hit with a trio of new lawsuits by former senior employees who claim their questions and complaints about safety and management at the embattled home for troubled youths resulted in retaliation and, ultimately, cost them their jobs during reorganization efforts earlier this year.

The wrongful termination complaints are the latest manifestation of ongoing turmoil at the storied institution, a 74-year-old residential care center and school near Sonoma roiled in recent years by employee misconduct charges and internal strife, in part due to a change in leadership in 2014.

The three plaintiffs, described in their suits as whistleblowers, and many other former employees were part of what longtime regent Richard Caselli described in an email as the victims of “a purge” that took place last spring, when all Hanna staffers were let go and required to reapply for jobs that were sometimes quite different from the ones they had previously held. Casselli himself resigned in the aftermath after 43 years — the third trustee or regent to resign his post in as many months over what they said was growing dissatisfaction with administration of the facility.

But CEO Brian Farragher says a profound cultural shift has driven that change. It involves, he said, adoption of a new treatment framework, as well as staff realignments aimed at shoring up needed educational improvements and streamlining residential supervision. Together, he claims they set the institution on the right path.

Board Chairman Tullus Miller agreed.

“We believe we have treated the former employees fairly, and we are working to streamline HBC to better serve more young men consistent with our strategic plan,” Miller said in an email. “We believe our actions were fair and proper and will defend our position throughout the process ahead.”

The plaintiffs include former recreational specialist David Montano and program coordinator Louis Godoy, who had been outspoken in their concerns about escalating bullying, drug use and violence during recent years, their suits say. Critics say Farragher’s abandonment of Hanna’s longtime system of rewards and punishment means residents, ages 12 to 18, are no longer held accountable for their conduct and thus are free to act out without fear of reprisal, sometimes dangerously.

Both also testified about their observations during the civil trial of former Hanna Clinical Director Tim Norman, who was awarded $1.1 million by a Sonoma County jury in his own wrongful termination case against the center last year.

The third plaintiff is former campus librarian Celeste Cook, a reading and English teacher who twice last spring hosted staff meetings in her home to air misgivings about practices and leadership, and to convey concerns to Miller and other representatives from the board of directors. Cook, after working at Hanna for 15 years, had begun locking her classroom door for fear of disruption and bullying by other students, according to her lawsuit. She also routinely opened the library at lunchtime as safe harbor for frequent victims, hosting on average 20 to 25 boys in need of refuge, the suit states. The facility typically has between 70 and 80 youths enrolled.

Other teachers had warned her she was “putting a target on her back” by offering her home for the staff meetings, but she did so anyway, her lawsuit states.

All three found themselves unemployed by the end of this past summer — a result of their resistance to new principles they believed rendered unsafe the very boys they were there to nurture and help, they said in their suits.

Godoy, an 18-year employee, and Montano, a veteran of 28 years — were offered lesser jobs at lower pay. Godoy, who had endured a recent series of “write-ups” and exclusions from training and meetings as a “disgruntled employee,” did not bother applying, his suit states. His longtime office had recently been given to an interim employee who only came in once a week, the claim says. Montano applied but lost out to someone without recreational experience, according to his case.

Cook was not rehired.

All three are represented by attorneys who won Norman’s case. They seek punitive damages, in addition to recovery of lost pay and benefits, past and future; compensation for mental and emotional distress; attorneys’ fees and costs; and other, special damages.

Central to the ongoing discord at Hanna is the administration’s embrace of the new national standard for treatment of childhood trauma victims, which seeks to work through emotional issues and behavioral problems relationally, rather than through old-school disciplinary methods, which could trigger existing trauma from childhood neglect, abuse or family violence.

Farragher maintains the learning curve has been steeper for some staff members, and that working through difficult, sometimes combative behaviors is part of the job.

“We work with kids who sometimes use substances to manage their emotions. We work with kids who have trouble managing their affect, and who lash out and can be difficult, and that’s part of what we’re helping them through. So you gotta lean into that. And so that’s been a change under my leadership, and I stand by that,” he said.

His critics, who include some who remain employed at Hanna, say the philosophy has not been put into practice satisfactorily, putting vulnerable boys and staff at risk and unable to speak up without fear of retaliation.

They say Norman’s dismissal in 2016 after 31 years as head of clinical care made that abundantly clear.

Meanwhile, Hanna began accumulating citations from state regulators after years of maintaining a spotless record, leading to the near revocation of its license.

Hanna is now half-way through a 3-year probation period imposed largely due to revelations of sexual misconduct involving Norman’s replacement, former Clinical Director Kevin Scott Thorpe, who was eventually convicted and imprisoned for abuse and misconduct of four victims, including three former Hanna boys.

Most of the now-29 citations amassed since mid-2015, a year into Farragher’s tenure, involve supervision, housekeeping issues and more serious matters related to client conducts such as fights, bullying and improper reporting of incidents involving residents.

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