Foster Care Agency challenges allegations of sexual harassment | Colorado Springs News

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A May 13 lawsuit filed in Denver Federal District Court ends what former employees of a Christian foster care agency in Colorado Springs say were years of sexual harassment complaints that were not processed.

Former staff member Olivia Ballage alleges that Hope & Home executive director Ross Wright has discriminated against on the basis of sex, race and disability. The lawsuit also calls for retaliation from Wright.

Wright believes the situation is the latest development in what he describes as prolonged “harassment and stalking” towards his organization which accepts lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual couples as foster parents.

But he said he could not discuss the matter due to the safety and security risks the issue has created for the organization.

Hope & Home attorney Ray Deeny, of the Sherman & Howard law firm, said he had not been served with the lawsuit, but previous investigations into such allegations “have determined that he has not been served. there had been no sexual harassment violations “.

In a statement, board chairman Dick Schultz said the organization had “complete confidence in our justice system” and intended to “fully submit to the legal process as it unfolds. its progress “.

The nonprofit’s former chief financial officer, Wendy Neal, said she became the whistleblower when after five years working there she resigned in August 2019 and alerted the board of administration on situations that she and her colleagues viewed as sexual misconduct on Wright’s part.

“There’s a story of at least 10 years where he romantically pursues people, makes rude sexual comments and people leave as a result,” Neal said.

The problem came to light in mid-2019, she said, when an employee suddenly quit and, before she left, told several colleagues that she had experienced sexual harassment at work.

At a subsequent board meeting, Neal said he overheard Wright announce that the staff member left because she was recruited elsewhere.

After realizing that many women abruptly quit their jobs, Neal said she and other women affiliated with the organization began speaking with current and past employees.

“We took in about 20 statements, ranging from totally sexually explicit comments he made to women – like he wanted to have an affair with them – to things like ‘He gives me scary vibes’,” a- she declared.

Ballage alleges in his lawsuit that Wright “discriminated against me and other employees, among others … looking at our breasts while talking to us, looking up and down in a sexual manner, making inappropriate comments about us. physical appearance, talking about how we look at events while wanting us to have a certain appearance.

Hope & Home’s board of directors hired a third-party workplace investigator in September 2019 to review the claims.

Neal said the Denver Employers Council investigator interviewed at least five former employees and two employees at the time, as well as a foster parent.

Wright claimed staff were leaving because they were upset the organization decided to allow same-sex couples as foster parents, said Reverend Ellen Goad, a former foster parent of Hope & Home for nearly a decade and pastor of ministries at Vanguard Church in Colorado Springs.

“It’s a lie,” she said. “It is not true.”

Goad said the issue was not a factor in her decision to end her affiliation with Hope & Home, adding that she is now a foster parent with another agency in town that also allows couples to alike. sex. Colorado law does not restrict who can offer foster care based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or marital status.

“These types of allegations are serious, and organizations claiming to be Christian and taking funds from individuals, as well as public funds, should be held to a level of accountability that represents faith,” Goad said.

Board members received the investigator’s report, which otherwise remained confidential, Neal said.

The board hasn’t taken any apparent action on this, Neal said.

That’s because there was no reason to do it, said former board member Bob Lanting, who served on the nonprofit’s board of directors for 18 years. , including during the investigation.

“I’m not sure there has ever been anything proven,” Lanting said, adding that he always had a high regard for Wright’s leadership.

“Ross Wright is a man of great character who knows the childcare industry well,” Lanting said. “There are people who drag accusations but have nothing to back them up. “

In his statement to The Gazette, the current chairman of the board, Schultz, said the allegations were never reported during the time the employees were on staff and the conclusion of the investigation was “qu ‘there was no basis for their claims.

Marla Brown, the only female board member at the time, unexpectedly resigned from her post the day after members received the investigation report.

Her family had been involved in the organization for 11 years, including 10 years as a foster family, and had volunteered as a trainer for the new foster parents.

While Brown said she was unable to disclose details of the investigation, she said after reading the report that she “did not feel comfortable continuing” her role as leader as a member of the board of directors.

“We were very emotionally invested and loved the organization and put in a lot of our time and energy, and suddenly I had to leave,” she said.

Federal complaints of discrimination filed

Three women affiliated with Hope & Home filed workplace discrimination complaints in April 2020 with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Denver.

In February, the commission dismissed the complaints, saying there had been no determination of a violation involving discrimination and that the agency had chosen not to investigate.

Women have won the right to sue.

Ballage is the only one to have decided to take this path.

“I want justice done for myself and for other women,” she said. “During the three years I was there, I was just completely miserable.

“I wasn’t comfortable just letting go.”

Schultz said the organization’s leaders were taken aback by the lawsuit.

“This particular employee (Ballage) left the organization with well-documented and unsolicited rave reviews of her time as a Hope & Home employee,” he said.

Former Hope & Home employee Julie Briggs was among those who filed an EEOC claim.

“The whole situation is very infuriating,” she said, adding that she was aware of at least three employees with whom Wright “was trying to continue a sexual relationship.”

“He was making people uncomfortable with his advances to the point that they left a career that they liked to take away from him,” Briggs said.

Meghan Jackson, a former foster mom at Hope & Home, was part of a group associated with the nonprofit that has submitted more than 100 pages of documents and statements to the Colorado Department of Human Services and to the Colorado Child Welfare Ombudsman in March 2020.

“As far as we can find women who worked for Ross Wright at Hope & Home, there are allegations of misconduct and sexual harassment,” she said.

The state’s Department of Social Services informed Jackson in October, saying “the investigation of violations of their regulations was temporarily on hold until they had a chance to conduct an in-person investigation.”

Hope & Home is one of the largest agencies in the Pikes Peak area that recruits, trains, certifies and supports host families, according to Julie Krow, executive director of the El Paso County Social Services Department.

It is also one of the largest in the state, providing foster homes for more than 3,200 children and adoption homes for around 400 children over its 23-year history, said Schultz. .

The organization was founded 23 years ago by a member of the First Presbyterian Church and today is not affiliated with any particular church or denomination.

Hope & Home has a good track record and Wright has tremendous influence in the community, say former employees, who they believe helped quash their claims outside the court system.

Said Schultz: “As we navigate this situation, we are committed to keeping the children and families of Hope & Home as our primary focus.”

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