State revokes license for home for troubled youth

 SPRINGFIELD — The state is revoking the license of a group home for troubled teens, following its investigation of abuse allegations.

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services commenced an investigation of Vision for Youth Inc. last year when surveillance camera footage appeared to show an employee slamming a teenager onto a hallway floor.

That footage came after past allegations of mistreatment made by youths in Vision’s boot-camp-style program. It spurred the children services agencies of several surrounding counties to pull teens from the home, which operated four facilities in the city.

Records obtained from the state by the News-Sun show that the incident caught on video was not unprecedented for the home.

The records, which document investigations of incidents at their 327 S. Center St. facility by Job and Family Services from 2001 to 2007, show that on at least three occasions, state licensing specialists recommended that the home’s license be revoked, but it never was.

Complaints to the state ranged from reports that the home’s CEO, Ralph Williams, had handcuffed a teen, to claims that a child care worker choked a teen. On one occasion in 2003, an employee admitted to punching a boy in the face, bloodying his nose.

Among the reasons given by the state for revoking the home’s license are the failure by staff to maintain proper documentation on employees’ criminal background checks, and the violation of children’s right’s and restraint policies.

The state’s investigation concluded last year, but Job and Family Services did not send a letter of revocation to Williams until Jan. 21. He has 30 days from that date to request a hearing to appeal the decision.

Williams, however, voluntarily surrendered his license in a letter to the agency in November.

“Because we didn’t have any kids, ain’t no sense in keeping our license,” Williams said in a phone interview. “We just felt that our reputation was hurt so bad with this nonsense.”

Scenes on video seem to contradict police report -  Man says violence caught on center’s surveillance tape doesn’t tell whole story

SPRINGFIELD — The video shows a large man jab his finger in the face of a smaller teenage boy, then grab him by the neck, bounce him off the wall and slam him onto a hallway floor.

Caught in August 2008 by a surveillance camera at the Inside Out Community Center, 501 S. Wittenberg Ave., the event showed a child care worker with the Vision for Youth group home appear to manhandle a 17-year-old.

It triggered investigations by state and local authorities. Now the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services is revoking the home’s license, and Springfield police are working with several counties in an ongoing criminal investigation of the home.

Lafayette Dante Smith, the man in the video, says the police report of the incident does not match the claims of Pastor Bill Stout, the man who released the video to the media last year. Smith declined to comment further.

What the video captured differs significantly from his account in the police report. In that report, Smith told police he caught the boy sleeping during a church service, and that after he woke the teen up, the boy started yelling and approached Smith in a threatening manner, as though he was about to hit him.

Stout, who was in the room at the time and can be seen in the video conducting the church service, said it did not happen that way.

“(Smith) called for (the boy) to follow him out of the room, and then (the boy) followed him out of the room,” Stout said. “I was standing right there.”

The video appears to confirm Stout’s version of events. In the video, Smith walks calmly to the  back row of the congregation toward the teenage boy sitting just outside the frame. Smith then walks back the way he came, followed by the boy, who sidles through the row and then exits the frame. In the video, the boy appears to do nothing to provoke or threaten Smith.

They then reappear in a hallway outside the room. What happened there — what the surveillance video caught — was not in the police report, and Stout had no idea what went on in the hallway until he saw the video.

Ultimately, it was the boy — not Smith — whom police arrested for assault. He was put in Clark County Juvenile Detention Center. He had sustained minor injuries to his right elbow and scratches to the front and back right side of his neck. Smith had no visible injuries.

The assault charge against the boy, which was later dropped, stemmed not from the altercation caught on video, but from a reported incident that occurred once the boy fled the building.

According to the police report, once outside, the boy punched Smith in the jaw. That charge was later dismissed in part because the boy had mental health issues, according to Taylor Airey, assistant prosecuting attorney with the Clark County prosecutor’s office.

“Legally you can run from an incident like that, and then commit an assault against the same people,” Airey said, “but there’s a difference between following strictly the letter of the law and being reasonable.”

Police Chief Steven Moody said at the time of the initial report, officers weren’t aware of the existence of the surveillance camera footage. He said he could not comment on the report because he hadn’t seen it.

“A lot of times, we go out on scenes, and what is reported to us initially and what we later find out don’t always match up,” he said.

Though Moody acknowledges that Stout showed the video to an attorney with the prosecutor’s office, he faults Stout for releasing the video to the media instead of his department.

“If a child is in danger, and it’s in the city, we’re the people you need to call," Moody said.

State records show several complaints - Staffers could restrain youths, but could not physically discipline them.

SPRINGFIELD — Vision for Youth Inc. at one time maintained four facilities in Springfield, with teens from the foster care system and 13- 18-year-old juvenile felons from as many as 10 counties enrolled in its bootcamp- style program.

Vision had a history of problems, according to state records, but by all accounts the home’s child care staff managed a difficult population — children who were hard to place anywhere else because of criminal records and emotional problems, said Brian Harter, a spokesman for Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services.

“You look at these kids’ backgrounds … (they) have a lot of issues, and they have situations that require special attention,” Harter said. “It’s not an easy situation for the staff to deal with on a day-today basis. But that’s not to condone anything.”

Harter said that while state law allows staff at group homes to restrain minors physically, staff is prohibited from administering physical discipline. Punching a juvenile, for instance — which reportedly happened at a Vision facility — is grounds for revocation of the home’s license.

On at least three occasions, licensing specialists investigating complaints about Vision recommended its license be revoked, but the home was allowed to continue operating.

Homes like Vision, which accept difficult-toplace youths, are expensive and in short supply, according to Cathy Appel, deputy director of Clark County Children Services.

And Harter admits the state, whose role is to regulate and license such homes, is reluctant to close them, and so gives their management every opportunity to become compliant.

Ann Stevens, spokeswoman for Montgomery County Job and Family Services, which pulled children from the program after a video was released apparently showing a teen from her county being manhandled, said her agency likely wouldn’t have sent kids there again — even if it had managed to keep its license.

“We need to ensure that children like these, who are already traumatized by their circumstances, are not revictimized by the system,” Stevens said.

Records maintained by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services on the home between 2001 and 2007 show that:

  • In February 2001, the state received a complaint that a staff member had choked a youth at the home. In records that document the investigation, the licensing specialist for the state cited the use of “inappropriate restraints” lacking “proper justification.” The staff member was fired.
  • In December 2001, a licensing specialist recommended the home’s license be revoked following an incident in which the home’s CEO, Ralph Williams, reportedly handcuffed a youth. Williams was a probation officer with the Clark County Juvenile Court, but the youth was placed in the home by Franklin County authorities, and therefore out of Williams’ jurisdiction.
  • In January 2002, a licensing specialist recommended the home’s license be revoked following a complaint that staff failed to report or even document an instance of one of the residents running away from one of the program’s facilities in February of the previous year.
  • In February 2002, a licensing specialist wrote “the recommendation…continues to be revocation of the agency’s license” following an investigation of complaints of excessive force, and that residents were not receiving enough to eat. When Williams appealed the state’s finding of noncompliance, his appeal was denied.
  • In October 2002, Williams failed to report an allegation of abuse or neglect of a youth in the program to the police or to the county that placed the youth in his custody. State law requires a licensed group home to report mere suspicion of abuse or neglect.
  • In April 2003, a staff member admitted to punching a boy at the home in the face and bloodying his nose. The child care worker was reported to have been fired over the incident. However, state documents show that he was suspended temporarily without pay.
  • In June 2006, a youth alleged that a member of the staff had slammed another boy against a wall. During the investigation, other residents at the home corroborated the account, but the claim could not be substantiated in part because the staff member had been fired. Williams declined to provide the investigator with the former employee’s phone number or address.
  • In August 2007, the state received a complaint that the home failed to provide timely medical care for a youth injured in a fight. The subsequent investigation found the home had failed to keep track of the medication administered to residents, and also was not reporting AWOL incidents and criminal activity to their kids’ placement agencies.