When the allegations against EMQ FamiliesFirst originally came to light, including the off-campus rape of an 11-year-old and persistent problems with the young residents going AWOL into the community without supervision, the focus was rightly on the impact, upon young and vulnerable residents, of changes to FamiliesFirst policies in the last six to nine months.
However, those policies also had serious impacts on employees. Robert Keith Oldham is now suing EMQ FamiliesFirst after Mr. Oldham claims he was terminated on January 18, 2013, for what he is calling “falsely-alleged violations” of employee policies and procedure.
Instead, Mr. Oldham, represented by local employee law attorney Mary-Alice Coleman, argues that the termination for his teaching services was “pretextual” and that he was “fired because he vocalized and complained” to administrators “about unsafe working conditions at the facility that were caused” by EMQ FamiliesFirst improper personnel practices.
Mr. Oldham is the first known lawsuit, but several other former employees have spoken to the Vanguard, claiming that they were terminated and retaliated against when they spoke out against conditions at the facility – the facility that last month the State Department of Social Services moved to close after finding a string of alarming incidents involving the young residents following an initial report of rape.
Mr. Oldham claims that he was terminated by the agency who “fired the messenger… rather than address and rectify the very serious violations” that he had called to their attention.
The report from DSS alleges that EMQ FamiliesFirst was in violation of state regulations regarding protection of personal rights, lack of care and supervision, and inadequate staffing, personnel requirements and runaway plan.
According to the complaint filed by DSS, from January 2012 to June 4, 2013, FamiliesFirst, Audrie Meyer and Gordon Richardson “failed to ensure the personal rights of children in care and provide for their care and safety without exploitation or prejudice; failed to ensure the provision of adequate care and supervision; failed to ensure that there was adequate and competent staffing to meet the needs of the children; allowed children to leave the facility without maintaining appropriate supervision of the children; and, further, endangered the health and safety of children in care by failing to comply with their respective responsibilities.”
The complaint alleges, “During the period between February 3, 2012 and June 4, 2013, and for an unknown period before, the exact dates of which are unknown to the complainant, respondent Families First, Audrie L. Meyer and Gordon Richardson failed to ensure that there was appropriate supervision and adequate staff to child ratios in that children were routinely and frequently leaving the facility without adult supervision.”
Further, the complaint continues, “Respondents failed to ensure that facility staff was properly trained and utilizing proper non-physical interventions to discourage children from leaving or who were attempting to leave the facility.”
In Mr. Oldham’s suit, he notes that the facility is “required to provide and maintain specific staffing levels and ratios,” and these staffing levels and ratios are mandated for reasons of health, safety and protection.
“Compliance with mandated staffing levels at a designated Level 14 facility is especially critical because of the typically violent behaviors (students) display at varying times,” the suit alleges, and because of potentially adverse consequences for student violence that can be very significant.
Mr. Oldham’s suit notes, “In addressing misbehavior or violence by (students) at a Level 14 facility, the full and exclusive attention of multiple teachers or staff members may be required. In particularly aggressive situations, as many as six (6) or more staff have been required before the (student) could be calmed. Such situations can create immediate staffing voids which affect the health, safety and welfare needs of the non-misbehaving (students).”
During the course of such misbehavior or violence, it is not uncommon for staff and teachers to receive injuries in their efforts to calm, subdue or restrain students.
These injuries also impact the staffing ratio and Mr. Oldham alleges, “There is direct relationship between the health, welfare and safety of the (students) and of the on-duty teachers and staff, and such relationship is compromised to the harm and detriment of all if (EMQ FamiliesFirst) fails to comply with minimum staffing ratios and requirements.”
Mr. Oldham was hired in October 2009 as a physical education teacher, and later was assigned as a classroom teacher.
According to his account, “Beginning in late 2011 or early 2012, (Mr. Oldham) needed to call for back-up assistance an average of 2-3 times per day. During this time period, (Mr. Oldham) observed significant response delays – or, increasingly, no responses at all – to his radio requests for emergency assistance from other teachers, teacher’s aides, full-time and part-time child care staff, and on-call back-up staff. As a result, (Mr. Oldham) realized that he was being forced to handle and resolve more and more misbehaviors and aggressive or violent encounters with (students) without any adult assistance at all.”
New operating policies were put into place at this time, compelling the teachers and staff to “evade” contact even if physically-aggressive contact was initiated by the student, “regardless if self-defense was warrented or otherwise justified.”
These changes resulted in a “significant reduction in his ability to verbally control the (students),” who “quickly recognized that misconduct and even violence prompted significantly different reactions from the teachers and the staff than in the past.”
He became further concerned in late 2011 and 2012 that staffing reductions posed a greater safety risk for students and staff alike.
In November 2012, EMQ FamiliesFirst announced that “all part-time employees and all on-call back-up staff would be laid off or terminated by the end of that year.”
As the Vanguard reported earlier, the lack of back-up staff had a huge impact on the facility’s ability to prevent students from leaving campus and monitoring students when they did. It also effectively prevented the facility from physically restraining students.
Mr. Oldham reports that, during this time, his complaints were falling on “deaf ears.”
The complaint filed alleges a number of incidents that Mr. Oldham observed or became involved in between November 2011 and January 2013.
On October 2011, he observed a student attacking a maintenance worker and before he could call for assistance, the student attempted to punch Mr. Oldham in the face. In February 2012, he detained a student who yelled racial slurs and threw an object at another student. The student, in the process of being controlled, attempted to punch Mr. Oldham.
In both of these incidents, Mr. Oldham was reprimanded for failing to avoid physical contact with the student and improper restraint.
In total, Mr. Oldham was involved in eight incidents.
The final documented incident occurred on November 8, 2012. Mr. Oldham and eight other staff members became involved when a student left class without permission. The student had recently been involved in assaults where he choked staff members.
Mr. Oldham followed the students to a tool shed that contained items that had been previously used as weapons against staff members.
During the efforts to corral the student, they collided and the student ended up on top of Mr. Oldham on the ground. The student bit Mr. Oldham on the back before others could assist.
The complaint notes, “While (Mr. Oldham) was being treated at a medical facility, the nurse practitioner told (Mr. Oldham) that (the EMQ FamiliesFirst Davis Facility) seemed like a ‘war zone’ because so many injured employees came in for treatment.”
In his written report about the November 8, 2012 incident, he wrote, “[O]n the day of this incident many (students) were leaving the school building and stressing our staff-student ratios and creating crisis situations in which assistance calls went unanswered for several minutes.”
Last week, three weeks after the DSS called for the facility to be shut down and top officials to be effectively banned from working in the field, Yolo County moved to revoke the mental health certifications. As of last week, only 14 residents remained at the facility. There were 63 at the facility a few months ago.
The move by the Yolo County Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health would strip the facility of its level 14 status which would remove its nearly $10,000 monthly payment it received for each child in its care.
“They are still licensed as a group home,” Kim Suderman, the director of the department said. “This only affects their reimbursement.”
The move would force the agency to apply for a new classification level. The group home reportedly failed 10 of 11 cerification requirements, including a lack of on-call staff (noted above), no 24-hour psychiatric services, and no one-on-one staffing capacity.
The lawsuit was filed on Thursday at Yolo County Superior Court. It alleges a violation of labor code, wrongful termination in violation of public policy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of implied contract and of covenant of good faith and fail dealing.
—David M. Greenwald reporting