Whistleblowers often have a hard time being heard. It’s easy to classify someone with a long list of complaints as a rabble-rouser, a troublemaker, or just plain disgruntled. Three former employees of the Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) have decided to go public with the information that they have. Tim Hall, Kurt Teegarden, and Ken Ross have very little to gain from speaking out. They each have lost their jobs and will have a hard time finding work in another correctional facility due to the various reasons for their ultimate separation from the OYA. There are hundreds of pages of documentation to back up the various claims that they make. They’ve also made many attempts at trying to get the word to OYA management, to the governor, and the SEIU leadership. What they’re hoping for is the ability to regain credibility that has been lost.

The staff at Oregon Youth Authority endure a number of challenges that are just part of the job. It’s commonplace for an “offender” (one of the terms used interchangeably with “clients” or “youth” to describe the people under their care) to flood their rooms with urine, which leads to a confrontation between staff and offenders in the hazardous environment. Sometimes the offenders are double-jointed and can slip out of handcuffs, some are mentally challenged, and others are just violent. Despite the classification as youth, OYA supervises individuals between the ages of 12 and 24. Forty-eight percent are over the age of 18.

Rape and prison are often mentioned together. It’s a punch line for a joke, except for the people who are subjected to the threat of it, and in ever-increasing numbers, the actual crime. Rape is not accepted in the prison system. A federal law made that a requirement: the aptly-named Prison Rape Elimination Act, established in 2003.

Tim Hall was a Group Life Coordinator II assigned to MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn. A Group Life Coordinator provides supervision of youth offenders. They’re responsible for overseeing daily activities like appropriate behavior, hygiene, and proper dress.

On Thursday, February 26, 2009, after completing a group treatment session, a 17-year-old sex offender assigned to McBride Cottage (where Hall was stationed) reported to him that a former offender from the cottage “stuck his hands down the front of his pants in the McBride kitchen” and “grabbed his penis.” Hall says that he filed a report as required.

Two days later, the alleged perpetrator, who had been moved to the transitional facility Camp Tillamook, called to speak with Hall. At first he denied the allegations, but later that night he called back and admitted to sexually abusing the young man. During that phone call, Hall says, the offender also admitted to having sexual contact with others in custody. In addition, he admitted the involvement of other high-tag, or privileged, sex offenders assigned to the cottage and that rapes occurred in the presence of other offenders in the “high-tag room.”

Hall says that after receiving that information, he relayed it to McBride Cottage staff and completed an incident report as per procedure.

Approximately a week after reporting the alleged rapes, Hall began to receive disciplinary action as a result of allegations made by offenders in the prior week. Over 100 grievances, over 13 pages of complaints, were filed against Hall in two day’s time. He believes that those complaints were driven by management at MacLaren. Regardless, as a result of the onslaught of complaints, he was duty stationed at home that afternoon pending an investigation. In the meantime, documentation states, the treatment manager at the time installed a mirror in the high-tag room and changed the policies concerning supervision.

State employees, like those working at MacLaren, are mandatory reporters and are required by law to report child abuse. On April 13, 2009, a group of six OYA staffers, including Hall, went to the Department of Human Services (DHS) hoping to spur action. The meeting was conducted by a screening supervisor at DHS.

Ann Snyder, communications manager at OYA, says that any kind of report is investigated – every time. Those investigations may involve Oregon State Police or the department’s human resources.

“If a crime has been committed by a youth or staff, the police handle that portion of the investigation. If a staff member has behaved in a manner that merits discipline, HR steps in,” Snyder adds. She goes on to say that police investigations are confidential while they are under way and Professional Standards Office (the organization’s internal affairs department) and HR investigations are confidential, so it’s not always possible to tell people the results of an investigation.

“If criminal charges or job dismissals don’t result, it can leave the misimpression that there was no follow-up. But I can assure you that every complaint is investigated, and we attempt to make contact with all parties who can provide information,” she says.

However, two years later, information is scarce on the investigation. “All information related to child abuse reports and investigations are protected under both state and federal privacy laws. In addition, DHS would not be the agency involved in an investigation of an incident like this – that would be law enforcement,” explains Gene Evans, communication manager for DHS. He says that some cases are referred to the Office of Investigation and Training, but that they are limited to situations like abuse and neglect of adults with mental illness or in certain out-of-home treatment settings like therapeutic group homes.

What Evans was able to answer, however, are general questions concerning what DHS policies are concerning keeping a mandatory reporter in the loop.

“[Mandatory] reporters are informed regarding what referral was made, but not about the progress of investigation. A reporter may be told, ‘We are sending this to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.’ They would not continue to get updates on the case,” he says.

The Marion County District Attorney’s office was unable to speak on any specific incident without a case number. Neither a case number nor referrals were provided to the group of individuals reporting the alleged crimes.

Snyder says that OYA wouldn’t be able to provide any information on the investigation, because the Oregon State Police would be the keeper of the records.

As of Salem Weekly’s deadline, the Oregon State Police was unable to provide any information regarding an investigation of the alleged rapes at McBride Cottage. Salem Weekly has obtained the names of the victims and the alleged perpetrators, but has chosen not to publish them because of the nature of the alleged crimes. We are unable to confirm whether the parents of the victims were contacted as required by law. At least one of the alleged perpetrators was released from custody in March 2010.

“They still to this day have not investigated the rapes at McBride Cottage,” Hall says.

Hall’s paid administrative leave lasted for eight and a half months. When he returned to MacLaren, he was assigned to a different cottage. During that time, he witnessed offenses being committed that he felt needed to be reported. He sent an email to his supervisors reporting assaults including assailants putting feces in another’s tennis shoes. Hall says that the response he got back from his supervisor was “Boys will be boys.”

He says that after those reports, he was placed on administrative leave once again. Hall was ultimately terminated from employment at OYA on July 1, 2011. He believes that it’s because of retaliation for reporting issues like the assaults and the alleged rapes at McBride Cottage.

Alongside Hall was Ken Ross, a now-former staff member at MacLaren, a board member of SEIU 503 and a former chief steward for union members. In that capacity, he represented Hall through his final years at MacLaren. He has also represented a number of other employees on a wide range of issues and is a polarizing force in the OYA community.

In January 2010, at the request of Governor Ted Kulongoski’s office, Ross authored an open letter that included allegations such as the alleged rapes reported by Hall being ignored, an unsafe environment for OYA staffers, treatment problems, and procedural problems, like an inability to regulate contraband.

After two staff members were attacked by gang members, there was a need to ask for outside help to make sure that the offenders were going to be prosecuted, Ross says. They also wanted the offenders moved out of the proximity of the staff that they assaulted.

Oregon Youth Authority’s policies, Snyder says, include bringing law enforcement in if a youth’s actions rise to the level of a crime. Charges are then filed based on the outcome of the state police’s investigation. “The youth also will be subject to the standard sanctions for behavioral issues,” she adds.

But Ross says that it’s historically been tough to get offenders moved out of their facilities. “It’s been a tough time to get OYA and State Police and DAs of different counties to move to prosecute offenders after they’ve assaulted staff,” Ross says. Gang members often use their time at OYA facilities to earn their “stripes” in preparation for being transferred to a DOC-run facility. Attacks on staff and other offenders give them credibility within their factions.

For the last eight months at his position at MacLaren, Kurt Teegarden worked in the Troy unit. The unit was a combined crisis intervention unit and a living unit in the most secure facility that MacLaren has.

“The offenders that go to that Troy unit are the ones that continue to fail closed custody. Which means that they are continuing to assault other offenders or staff and they got sent to the Troy unit because that was the most intensive, controlled unit that OYA has tried to put together,” Teegarden says. During the time that he worked in the unit, only one offender received the points to qualify to go back to a deescalated living unit.

“On my Troy unit at one time, out of 14 staff, eight of them were out on medical leave for being either attacked by an offender or breaking up fights for an offender,” Teegarden says.

Former staff members say that security issues stem from population management issues, shifts that are understaffed, lack of proper video surveillance and lack of searches. Teegarden was involved in an altercation with an offender after security staff members lost control of a situation. They had decided to take bedding from an offender, but the offender lunged at the door as it was opening. The result was an injury for both the offender and for Teegarden. Teegarden was accused of excessive force and placed on administrative leave.

“During that night, they never once interviewed me, security staff didn’t take pictures of my face after the assault, nor did they offer me any first aid after the assault except for the one staff member,” Teegarden says.

Ross represented Teegarden during some of the disciplinary stages. It took four months to review the tape of the incident. The caveat to seeing the tape was that Ross could not be present, Teegarden says. He says that a staff member at Human Resources said that the tape was available prior, but that showing it to Ross would “just cause problems.”

Teegarden says, “I’m like, ‘You would withhold evidence from me to exonerate myself, just to get back at Ken, because he’s a union representative? Because he brings up all of these issues?'” Another union steward joined Teegarden as representation during the meeting, and he was then able to review the tape.

Eight months after the incident and after his resignation from OYA, Teegarden was brought up on three charges: witness tampering, excessive force, and unprofessional conduct. One of those counts was thrown out by the judge, he says, and the jury took only 10 minutes to rule in Teegarden’s favor. He was found not guilty on all charges.

Teegarden says that he was abandoned by SEIU. “It was my money, my time, and my lawyer that got me exonerated from those charges,” he says.

He feels that the offenders have the upper hand in OYA facilities. Prior to his own incident, Teegarden testified on the behalf of another staff member who was in the middle of an altercation with a different gang member whose name came up frequently in connection with staff assaults.

“The offender told me that management came to his room and told him that they thought the staff had done something wrong. They took him out of his room, up to an office, handed him a document,” Teegarden says. The offender then told him that if he could get a staff member in trouble, he would sign the document. The staff member that was named in the document ended up being terminated by OYA.

“In [that conversation], he told me, ‘Isn’t it funny that OYA will take us criminals’ words over you staff?'” Teegarden adds.

OYA uses an evidence-based, or evidence-informed, treatment model for 85 to 90 percent of all treatments. Snyder says that treatment decisions are based on the youth’s offense, initial intake assessment, and quarterly reviews.

“Director Peters also expanded the Research and Evaluation Office in partnership with the Oregon Department of Corrections to strengthen the use of research and data not only for treatment, but also for placement and parole decisions,” she adds.

Rehabilitation is a part of the program at OYA, Ross says, because of the 2003 legislative mandate.

“They have to portray [treatment being a priority] to the stakeholders to get funding. When they go to the Ways and Means Committee, when they go to the public and say ‘We need more funding,’ they also have to say ‘We’ve been successful.’ That’s why we went to the evidence-based model so that we could prove to the community and the stakeholders that we were successfully rehabilitating people,” he says.

Teegarden says that they do that by playing with words and matrices. For example, he says that the recidivism rate is an important number to keep low, so there are times where the difference between robbery and theft are loosened so that it appears to be a completely different crime.

“The DAs and other people have a tendency to help play that game so they can show that there’s not recidivism, even though the person stole the first time and then committed a robbery the second time,” he says.

Ross tells a story about a former offender that he worked with that ended up robbing a bank in Portland.

“When the journalists printed the story, they made no reference to his time at all as a sex offender. In fact, he had actually committed attempted murder on his victim. That was not even mentioned in the article. They portrayed him as some college kid who went and committed a bank robbery,” he says.

Hall says that he was assigned to lead treatment groups, despite not having any training at all in the subject.

“I’m sure the public thinks they are paying for a lot of these sex offender gurus to come in and perform treatment groups and stuff like that,” he says, adding that he believes that the qualified mental health professionals employed by the organization should be running groups.

“I couldn’t tell you, honestly, which treatment manager out there is qualified to facilitate offense-specific treatment. I couldn’t tell you, maybe other than one manager out there who is qualified to facilitate sex offender treatment. I’m sorry, I just can’t. They’re not qualified,” Ross says.

There are rumors of treatment that have been classified as either unorthodox or experimental. One of those rumors, that Snyder calls an urban myth, is that sex offenders were taken from a facility in Tillamook, into community parks and grocery store parking lots to observe children and control arousal as part of their treatment. It was substantiated that the rumor exists on campus, but direct evidence of that form of treatment being used has not been uncovered.

Camp Tillamook, which shares land with the closed facility Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility, includes a transition program which might be the origins of the rumor, Snyder says. Part of that program is teaching youth independent living skills, like comparing prices and reading labels, but she stresses that the rumor is just a rumor and not reality.

Another treatment that was included in documentation is one that involved late-night sessions “routinely” with offenders, sometimes until 3 a.m. Snyder says that those treatments were not standard procedures, but instead were used for youth in distress. Details of the treatment are unknown.

Last week, some of the sex offender cottages at MacLaren were closed due to budget constraints. Snyder says that no youth have been paroled as a result of the “capacity reductions” because crime rates have meant that they were operating below capacity.

“No treatment programs are being contracted out because of this. Our treatment managers and staff continue to provide treatment on-site, with some continued assistance from contractors, but there has been no change in this area. Staff levels have been reduced more or less proportionally to youth levels and we’ve retained all treatment programs,” she says.

Something that was oft-repeated during interviews with former staff of Oregon Youth Authority was “You go along to get along.”

“Staff who want to survive in OYA have to keep their mouth shut. If you want to survive, you see nothing, you hear nothing, you maintain the code of silence. If you report things, you will be held accountable. Everybody knows that. If you hold offenders accountable, you will be discredited by the manager and the offender will be given a free pass,” Ross says, adding that the result is that staff find ways to be completely oblivious to what is going on around them.

“That’s how staff survive at OYA. They survive by not knowing anything,” he says.

The code of silence buzzword is not new. In a Department of Corrections investigation report on a scandal involving former superintendent of MacLaren Darren Humphries, the investigator wrote: “There was a perception by OYA employees of a strong personal relationship between Mr. Humphreys and other OYA senior management and this perception impacted the reporting of Humphreys’ misconduct by some of the staff.”

Snyder says that the Director and Deputy Director of OYA regularly visit facilities and field offices to talk with staff, share expectations and hear concerns.

“OYA also conducts an employee survey annually to gather employees’ concerns in general about the agency’s culture. And, there is a hotline to PSO that anyone – staff, youth, families, volunteers, vendors, etc. – can call. All calls are investigated and appropriate sanctions are taken depending on the results of the review,” Snyder says.

She says that the organization under Peters has expanded the PSO and investigates all complaints and charges about staff behavior.

“Director Peters and the rest of Cabinet, almost all of whom have joined OYA within the past few years, have been working aggressively to model and set ethical, behavioral, and transparency standards. She meets regularly with staff throughout the state and with managers to share her expectations,” she says.

But Ross says that the changes haven’t resulted in a new culture at OYA. “The culture of ‘keep everything under wraps’ is still there,” he says.

Snyder stresses that the allegations made in Ross’ letter to the governor have been investigated and addressed as appropriate. She adds, “OYA’s Director has high expectations of the agency staff and has zero tolerance for any of the kinds of behaviors Mr. Ross claims have taken place.”

The letter asked that the governor’s office independently investigate the organization by speaking directly with the staff. “We need an independent group to properly evaluate the culture, climate, and working conditions in the Oregon Youth Authority,” he wrote. Ross also sent copies of the letter to Attorney General John Kroger, U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, State Representatives Dave Hunt and Betty Komp, and State Senators Peter Courtney and Chip Shields.

The governor’s office sent the letter to OYA management, as did Merkley’s and Courtney’s offices. Kroger’s office responded, saying that the attorney general does not have authority to intervene in the matter and suggested other ways of filing a complaint.

Ross says he went from hero to zero quickly after sending the letter. It didn’t just draw the ire of OYA management but also the leadership of SEIU. Ross was threatened in a letter with being ostracized publicly by the union, while also having disciplinary actions taken against him by OYA. The letter received little media attention at the time, except for an attempt that was made by television news program in Portland. Ross, due to his employment status at the time, was unable to comment on that story.

He says, “We’ve been working for a long time to get transparency and to get justice served.”

A history of corruption and scandal

Oregon Youth Authority’s history is clouded by scandal every few years.

MacLaren School for Boys played a key role in the first sexual abuse trial against a priest in Oregon. In 2003, seven men filed a lawsuit claiming that they were sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest while incarcerated in the late 1970s. The MacLaren facility has operated since 1926 and was put under the supervision of the Oregon Youth Authority in 1996. According to the Salem lawyer Daniel J. Gatti’s website, the jury came to a verdict awarding “nearly $1.4 million capped the three week trial. Not only did the jury find that Fr. Michael Sprauer abused the two plaintiffs, but they awarded punitive damages based upon clear and convincing evidence presented by attorney Daniel J. Gatti. The State of Oregon, who operates MacLaren, was found negligent as well.”

Michael Boyles was arrested February 15, 2004 and charged with 71 counts involving sex crimes with minors that he supervised. The Oregonian released information in a 2005 story that found that allegations against Boyles had begun in 1995. It wasn’t until 2002 that a police investigation began. Boyles remained employed by the Oregon Youth Authority until a month after he was jailed.

“I was appalled by the time they took to get rid of this guy,” Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Norm Frink told The Oregonian in 2005. “My personal opinion is that OYA had a lackadaisical attitude, both before and after his arrest.”

Then-Oregon Youth Authority director Robert Jester refused to respond to written questions to The Oregonian about the 1995 allegations, refused to release public documents, and to comment on a search warrant affidavit that was filed. Instead, he released a statement of concern about the allegations against Boyles and vowed to work cooperatively with the agencies investigating the allegations.

In October 2009, The Oregonian reported that former superintendent of MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility Darren Humphries was ordered to “serve 160 hours of community service, as well as probation and to make restitution of around $11,600.” He was accused of using Oregon Youth Authority staff and offenders to re-roof and install cabinets in his house. In that same report, reporter Richard Cockle mentions that a full day of testimony “sometimes suggested that Oregon Youth Authority was on trial.” Humphreys’ attorney was quoted as saying that the culture of Oregon Youth Authority “was massive drinking.” Witnesses for Humphreys told the court that they would “hate to see him serve as a whipping boy for the whole OYA.”

While then-Assistant Director of Facilities Brian Florip was included as part of the DOC investigation of Darren Humphries, the report indicated that it “could not be substantiated that Mr. Florip had direct knowledge of cabinets being built and installed by OYA youth and staff.” Humphries maintained that Florip had given him permission. In July 2008, The Oregonian classified Florip’s resignation as being “forced out.” Robert Jester, then Director of Oregon Youth Authority, told The Oregonian that the investigation turned up an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. Florip’s resignation letter made no mention of the pending investigation nor did the accompanying letter from Jester to Oregon Youth Authority staff.