A 10-year-old girl was molested after she was the only girl placed in a Tucson group home that also housed an older boy with a history of sexual issues, her mother alleges in a lawsuit filed last week.
The girl was placed in a group home run by Gap Ministries, which police reports show has a history of abuse between the children in its care.
Her mother, whom the Star is not identifying because she and her children share the same last name, says her two kids were placed in the group home in August 2013, a year after she lost custody for exposing them to a potentially dangerous family member.
She said the group home’s failure to supervise and promptly report her daughter’s molestation by a 13-year-old boy — who also was in CPS custody and living in the home — led to continued abuse by the boy.
She says the group home didn’t call police to report the suspected abuse and the boy wasn’t removed from the home until the mother called police herself, more than a week after the home knew about the abuse. During that time the girl was molested at least once more, her mother said.
She regained custody of her daughter and 8-year-old son in March. Her daughter, now 11, is still dealing with the trauma, she said.
“She has a lot of nightmares,” her mother said.
Gap Ministries officials would not discuss the lawsuit with the Star or answer questions about the supervision of children in its group homes.
“Due to the sensitivity and the nature of the issue, we are not able to make a comment. We really need to respect the privacy and honor those that are involved in this issue,” said Greg Ayers, Gap Ministries founder and president, in a voice mail.
The faith-based Gap Ministries runs 13 homes, known as Splash Houses, throughout Pima County. Most are licensed to house up to 10 children, ages birth to 17, and are staffed by two full-time, live-in house parents. Most of the homes can also house two additional children of staff members.
The mother and attorney Lynne Cadigan filed the complaint against the state, the group home and various employees in Pima County Superior Court on Wednesday.
DETAILS OF THE CASE
The mother said her daughter told her during a Sept. 28, 2013, visit that an older boy at the group home had touched her sexually. She reported the abuse on Sept. 30 by emailing her daughter’s CPS caseworker and calling the CPS hotline. Emails show that the girl’s therapist from Las Familias also notified the girl’s CPS caseworker, Erika Tabarez, of the abuse on Oct. 1.
The group home leaders later told police they took steps to keep the two children apart, including putting a chime on the boy’s door so they would know if he left his room and assigning a staff member to stay with him at all times, the police report shows. But in one instance, the boy molested the girl again late at night when he asked to use the bathroom and the staff member assigned to him was off-duty, the police report says.
When the mother heard from her daughter that the abuse was continuing, she called police on Oct. 8, 2013. An officer visited the group home and told house manager Francisco Contreras that he should have called authorities as soon as he learned of any suspected abuse, the police report said. Contreras said he’d only been working there a few months and was following the group home’s protocol, which was to call the home’s crisis manager, the police report said.
The accused molester was arrested on charges of class-3 sexual assault. He entered a plea agreement in the Pima County Juvenile Court, and was sentenced to sex offender therapy and 18 months on probation, his delinquency file shows.
The lawsuit also alleges that the victim’s brother, who was placed in the same home, endured physical and emotional abuse from two older boys in the home, including his sister’s molestor. CPS and group home leaders did not protect him, the complaint said.
“As a result of the defendants’ gross negligence and deliberate indifference to the welfare of the children they had the duty to protect, the plaintiff children have suffered severe emotional distress and physical harm,” the complaint says.
The mother says that because her daughter had been a victim of sexual abuse in the past, CPS should not have placed her in a group home where she would be the only girl and would be living with an older boy in counseling for sexual issues.
While no state law explicitly prohibits such placement, CPS is supposed to ensure children are in safe and appropriate placements, said Cadigan, the attorney representing the mother and her children.
“Any social worker will tell you that children should not be placed in a situation like that,” she said.
Named among defendants in the suit are Charles Flanagan, head of the newly formed Department of Child Safety; the Department of Economic Security, which had oversight of Child Protective Services at the time the abuse took place; Gap Ministries; Greg and Pam Ayers; the house parent and his supervisor; and the victim’s CPS caseworker.
The suit also names the state of Arizona as a defendant in hopes of forcing the state to enact stronger protections for children in CPS custody, Cadigan said.
“We want state to have more stringent regulations so this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
This is not the first time Gap Ministries has been accused of failing to respond to a report of sexual abuse. A 2006 lawsuit filed by former employees alleged the home refused to investigate a local doctor’s suspicion that a child in their custody likely had been sexually abused in the past.
The couple, Douglas and Janet Davis, cared for six siblings at a Splash House in 2004 and 2005. The lawsuit said the group home’s administrators resisted investigating the suspected abuse, which raised red flags for the couple, prompting them to resign and seek a foster care license to keep custody of “the children they had come to love.”
The couple said the group homes’ leaders then “voiced a number of false and defamatory statements” about the pair, including that Douglas Davis had killed someone, and accused them of child abuse — allegations a state investigation later discredited. Also, the group home refused to let the couple visit the children while they were seeking custody of them, the lawsuit said. The couple ultimately did get licensed as foster parents for the children.
The attorney involved in that case, Joane Hallinan, said she could not discuss any details because, when the case was settled, she signed a confidentiality agreement.
CONFUSION OVER RULES
Confusion over mandatory reporting rules is widespread, even among state child welfare workers, said Sgt. Gerard Moretz, supervisor of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department’s Crimes Against Children Unit.
A common misperception is that calling the state Department of Child Safety hotline to report abuse is enough. Suspected abuse by a parent, guardian or custodian can be reported to police or the DCS, but suspected abuse by anyone else — such as a sibling, peer or a sports coach — must be reported to the police, Moretz said. That law went into effect in 2003 to deal with reports of abuse that fell between the cracks at the state level, Moretz said.
Local group-home managers say abuse between troubled children living in congregate care can happen even at the most well-run facilities.
“Even with the best of supervision, sometimes incidents can happen,” said Susie Huhn, executive director of Casa de los Niños, which offers foster care and prevention services and a crisis shelter for children. “But there are precautions agencies need to take, particularly when there is knowledge of kids’ behavioral concerns.”
Failing to properly supervise makes abuse much more likely, said Moretz, of the Sheriff’s Department.
“The problem I’ve seen over and over again is that children are going into these environments and the supervision isn’t adequate to keep them from abusing one another. That’s really the heart of the matter,” he said.The repeated abuse between Gap Ministries’ wards suggests a fundamental problem with the homes’ setup, Moretz said. He said in his two years with the Crime Against Children Unit, police have been called to Splash Houses for sexual abuse between children about 30 times.
Most of the abuse incidents occurred overnight, which could indicate inadequate supervision during those hours, he said.
“It only takes a few seconds to abuse somebody,” he said.
State licensing rules say that for every 10 children over age 12, a group home must have one paid staff member in the home while the children are asleep, though the staff member doesn’t have to be awake.
But Moretz added, “There were some instances where the kids’ behavior was so impulsive and so instantaneous, that even reasonable steps taken to prevent something would not have worked.”
Gap Ministries has been receptive to suggestions of how to prevent abuse in the future, Moretz said.
“What they’re doing is providing a place for kids that otherwise wouldn’t have a place,” he said. “They understand that many of the kids they are serving bring with them this terrible baggage,” he said.
The kids in their care are vulnerable to being abused and to abusing one another, he said. “My thought is, if you know that going into it, you probably better work out the logistics and not stumble along, hoping for the best.”
The Arizona Department of Child Safety has not responded to an Aug. 28 public records request from the Star seeking complaints or disciplinary actions taken against the home since it opened in 2000.
In fiscal year 2014 Gap Ministries received $4.7 million from the Arizona Department of Child Safety to house children in its 13 group homes. Its residential-style homes are licensed to care for up to 130 children at a time and house about 350 children annually, its website says.
In 2012, the nonprofit’s president, Greg Ayers, and his wife Pam, co-founders of the nonprofit, earned $111,000 and $112,000, respectively, said the nonprofit’s 990 tax form.
FAILURE TO REPORT
While abuse in congregate care can be unavoidable, failure to report it immediately is unacceptable, said Kathy Rau, executive director of the Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center.
When children are abused in state custody, “what is the message we’re sending that child? You’re not safe at your home, you’re not safe with the state,” Rau said.
For mandatory reporters like group home staff, teachers and doctors, failure to report abuse of a minor is a class-1 misdemeanor and failure to report a sex crime is a Class 6 felony, Rau said.
Failing to help children who perpetuate the abuse — which typically stems from their own victimization — not only harms the victim, but the juvenile offender. Getting those children help before they become adults can help them avoid the label of sex offender and jail time, and instead provide rehabilitative services through juvenile court, Rau said.
“A lot of times, children that perpetrate on other children have issues that have not been reported,” she said. “This is their way of acting out. We need to be able to provide services for those kids before they get too old and are in the adult system, and there aren’t those opportunities to get help.”
The obligation to report applies when a mandatory reporter has a “reasonable belief” that a minor has been victimized, she said. Proof is not required.
“That is a very low standard. We’re not asking people to investigate,” she said. “If a reasonable person would believe a child has been a victim, that’s as far as you need to go.”
Sometimes foster parents or group homes are reluctant to report abuse committed by one of their charges. They worry if they’re not 100 percent sure the abuse is taking place, they could unnecessarily get the police involved in a vulnerable child’s life.
Rau understands that. But, she said, “You have to think about which is the lesser of two evils. What if something horrendous is going on and you don’t report it and now it continues? Which way are you going to be able to sleep at night?”