New Details On Report Allege Child Abuse By Head Of Victor Cullen Academy
10:16 p.m. 12/12/2007 Editor's note: Download the Swan Valley Youth Academy Investigative Report. This document, compiled by the Child and Family Services Division of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services in Jan. 2006, was released yesterday by a Montana judge. The report, on the heels of a licensing report made public early in 2006, alleges numerous incidents of physical and psychological abuse of students at the academy. Perkins has confirmed that he is the individual identified as "Staff #2" in this new report.
Scores of juvenile delinquents and teen counselors out in Montana know Chris Perkins, the recently tapped head of Maryland's Victor Cullen Academy for youth offenders, as "the Colonel."
Licensing authorities with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services know him as "Staff #20."
(Editor's Note 12/13/2007: Montana officials also know him as "Staff #2" in the investigative report released Dec. 12.)
Law enforcers out in Big Sky Country know him as a juvenile-detention administrator who was the subject of persistent allegations of child abuse--but one who never had a formal hearing on the merits of such allegations.
Here in Maryland, Perkins, who has been promoted to director of statewide detention facilities, is known as Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) Secretary Donald DeVore's point man for systemic reform.
No matter the perception of Perkins, a couple things are certain: He is a man with a questionable past, and both he and DeVore are out on a limb together in defending it.
In fact, it appears that both Perkins and DeVore have publicly mischaracterized a messy era in Montana's juvenile justice system--one that has Maryland officials looking out to the Wild West and perhaps seeing the Old Line State in the mirror. On the day this issue went to press, Dec. 11, The Washington Post reported that DeVore, who had originally claimed that Perkins was cleared of child-abuse allegations, is now launching an investigation.
On Nov. 28, in a web exclusive ("Juvenile Disservices," Mobtown Beat), City Paper reported that DeVore hired Perkins to head the newly renovated Victor Cullen Academy last summer without looking into Perkins' troubled past at Swan Valley Youth Academy, a military-style juvenile facility in Montana that Perkins headed from 2003 to 2006. Montana licensing authorities there found that Swan Valley staff, including Perkins, "Placed youth at risk of being physically and emotionally harmed."
The facility--the only one of its kind in Montana, and a major source of jobs in rural Lake County--submitted a plan of correction that regulators accepted. But in 2006 a media firestorm led to Perkins' removal for administrative reasons, plummeting enrollment, and huge financial losses for Colorado-based Cornerstone Programs Corp., which closed the facility.
In addition, Montana's Child and Family Services Division investigated allegations of criminal child abuse and neglect at Swan Valley--and by Perkins--and produced a confidential report that the Montana Advocacy Program (MAP), a nonprofit protection and advocacy group, is seeking to unseal based on the public's right to know.
Perkins recently told The Sun that he never told DeVore about either the licensing report or the abuse and neglect report, and DeVore stated that he was unaware of either report. Joseph Newman, the founder of Cornerstone, said that no one from Maryland ever asked him about Perkins. Then both Perkins and DeVore went a step further by insisting that Perkins was cleared of all allegations of child abuse.
"No facts against Mr. Perkins were sustained," DJS spokeswoman Tammy Brown told City Paper. "Secretary DeVore stands by Mr. Perkins." DeVore declined requests to be interviewed for this story.
"All the allegations against me were found to be not true," Perkins said in an interview Dec. 3. "There was no evidence or proof to support allegations that were grossly negligent, malicious, and manufactured. The state couldn't prove their case in any way, shape, or form. If even one of the allegations were true, then the state would have substantiated the allegations. Instead they dismissed them. If I slammed a kid against a wall, don't you think it would have been in a licensing report?"
Perkins said that he provided a copy of the confidential report to DeVore last week, after the City Paper story broke, and added, "I can authorize release of this report to anyone I want." Asked if he would provide City Paper with a copy he at first replied, "I'm not gonna do that. It's unfairly prejudicial." After some discussion in which Perkins elaborated on his successes in expanding the licensing and accreditation at Swan Valley, Perkins finally agreed to let City Paper review the report, pending approval from DeVore's office.
"If I had anything to hide, would I have tried to expand the program and invited regulators to come in to survey the place?" he asked. "I have an impeccable record of 15 years in this business. I have been totally absolved. I never hid anything from DJS. I felt it was a closed matter."
City Paper placed a call to Montana attorney Joseph Sternhagen, the hearing officer who formally dismissed the charges against Perkins of child abuse and neglect in December 2006. Sternhagen called the Perkins matter "bizarre" and said the charges were dismissed on procedural grounds. He said state investigators "substantiated" allegations of child abuse in a 22-page single-spaced report involving 14 kids, and that Perkins has never been tried on the merits of the case because the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services "dropped the ball."
"In my 12 years doing this--and I'm essentially the only person in the state who hears these cases--I've never seen the state go to such lengths to produce such a detailed substantiation of abuse and then quit," Sternhagen says. "This case was huge, and it just slipped through the cracks."
Sternhagen says that Perkins was not exonerated on the merits. He says Perkins hired a lawyer and filed motions to fight the charges, but the state failed to respond, and failed to show up for a hearing. "It's a 22-page document compiled by a team of investigators. I'm sure they could have proved something had they tried. But we'll never know for sure."
According to Judy Beck, a spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Justice, the Division of Criminal Investigation reviewed the findings of state-licensing authorities, child and family services investigators, and the Lake County sheriff's investigators, but by then the facility had closed. Mike Batista, who supervised the Department of Criminal Investigation's review, says, "we interviewed some children from the facility and some staff, but our investigation was hampered by the fact that the facility had closed." Batista indicates the matter was referred back to the Lake County attorney, who declined to press charges, a decision Batista says his investigator agreed with, given problems with the lack of available witnesses and the state's statute of limitations.
Brenda Wahler, a lawyer for Montana's Department of Public Health and Human Services, was less enthusiastic about receiving a call asking why she did not follow through on the report. She declined to discuss the details, citing confidentiality and pending review by a judge. But she confirmed that Perkins never had a hearing on the merits, and said that one reason was lack of resources at the state level to press the matter.
She also confirmed that the report is a "substantiated" document, and read the definition of substantiation from the Administrative Rules of Montana, section 37.47.602: "After investigation, a preponderance of the evidence shows that reported abuse, neglect, or exploitation occurred, based on credible information or facts."
The licensing report, made public in 2006, found 19 violations, including that staff at Swan Valley harmed youth during the intake process, imposed inappropriate seclusion and restraints on children, failed to report abuse and an attempted suicide to state authorities, and failed to "ensure proper care, treatment and safety of the residents."
Throughout the report, an individual identified as "Staff #20" is described as a figure of authority who required subordinates to alter restraint reports, who failed to report serious incidents to authorities, and who told state regulators that the program's philosophy is to "break the kid down to build them up."
"This philosophy is particularly harmful to any child's well being," licensing authorities concluded. Staff # 20 failed to follow up on abuse-reporting concerns to the child abuse hotline in seven separate cases, the report states; required staff to alter reports to indicate that proper restraint techniques were used when they were not; and failed to report a youth's suicide attempt on Sept. 10, 2004.
When asked by City Paper who Staff #20 is, Perkins replied, "I am."
"If abuse occurred, you would think staff would have gone to law enforcement, but they never did," he says. "That means it never happened, or they violated their duties as mandatory reporters of child abuse."
In fact, law enforcement was involved at Swan Valley, but Lake County officials and Montana officials played pass the buck until Swan Valley closed down for financial reasons and Perkins left the state.
According to Wahler, a Lake County sheriff's deputy was involved with the original licensing investigation of allegations of abuse at Swan Valley, and a review of official correspondence obtained by City Paper indicates the sheriff's department did not like what it saw.
After reporting allegations of criminal child abuse to the Lake County attorney's office in October 2005, MAP attorney Andrée Larose referred the matter to the Montana Attorney General's Office and asked for a criminal investigation. On June 22, 2006, John Connor, chief criminal counsel for the state, wrote to Larose and stated his office can only initiate criminal investigations "when requested by federal, state or local law enforcement authorities." Even then, Connor wrote, the Department of Justice's Division of Criminal Investigation conducts such investigations--not the state Attorney General's Office. That same day, Lake County Lieutenant Sheriff Michael Sargeant, head of criminal investigations, wrote DCI: "We are requesting your assistance in investigating the [Swan Valley] Youth Academy . . . after consultation with County Attorney Bob Long, we believe that this investigation should be pursued by the state."
Wahler says the state assigned a criminal investigator to the case, but that "to the best of my knowledge, the state Department of Justice never conducted a thorough investigation of alleged criminal child abuse at Swan Valley."
Connor, current Lake County attorney Mitch Young, and investigators at DCI in Montana all declined to be interviewed for this story.
Montana's failure to go the distance in resolving the substantiated findings of the Child and Family Services Division, which point to child abuse, are not what is bothering Marlana Valdez, Maryland's juvenile justice monitor. "I'm disappointed that Secretary DeVore hasn't announced a full investigation into Chris Perkins' background, and hasn't initiated a public discussion of DJS's vetting process and where it failed in this instance," she says. "Perkins had an ethical duty to disclose his background, and I see no evidence that he did, or that anyone asked him whether he had ever been the subject of child abuse allegations, [or] whether they were resolved or not. All I've seen from [DeVore] is blanket denials and no details."
Valdez is so steamed she took the matter to Gov. Martin O'Malley's office, to Catherine Motz, interim executive director for the Governor's Office for Children and a member of O'Malley's legal staff. "They appear to be taking the matter seriously," Valdez says.
At press time, O'Malley's staff had not returned calls for comment.
For his part, Perkins is laying low. He canceled an appointment to meet on Dec. 6 and declined to share a copy of the Montana abuse and neglect report, though he acknowledges it pertains directly to him. He pointed to a lengthy career in working with youth--one that began with a program called Rite of Passage, in Yerington, Nev., in 1992. From there he says he ran the juvenile justice court in Reno for a year, from 1995 to 1996, and served as a juvenile services director with a now-defunct company called Youth Track, in Colorado and Utah, from 1997 to 2000.
In 2000, Perkins says he left the industry because he wanted a change, joining some friends in his hometown of Seattle in an internet sports information venture called Rivals. He resumed working with children in 2002, Perkins said, when he joined Cornerstone, where he earned his nickname, "The Colonel," in keeping with its military-style regime.
By the time the dust cleared at Swan Valley, Perkins was with a Pennsylvania company called VisionQuest, where he worked for six months before DeVore, with whom Perkins says he has a previous relationship, recruited him to come to Maryland. "My heart is in working with kids," he says.
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