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Overseers step up abuse probe
State's a no-show; county officials defend actions

State officials charged with regulating group foster homes failed to appear at a Dane County committee hearing called to investigate how two sexual predators molested nearly a dozen boys under county care.

"The state didn't show," says Supv. David Worzala, chair of the county's Health and Human Needs Committee, which met Jan. 23 to quiz state and county officials about sexual abuse at Spring House, a group home operated from 1998 to 2006 on Madison's near east side. Worzala launched this inquiry in response to an Isthmus report ("Predators at Work," 1/19/07).

Bob Lee, a Dane County administrator, told the committee a state official had agreed to appear but then withdrew without explanation. Worzala is now asking Diane Bloecker, a licensing chief in the state's Department of Health and Family Services, to appear next Tuesday, Feb. 6. "If they think about it," he says, "it's really in their best interests to show up."

Stephanie Marquis, spokeswoman for DHFS, ascribes the matter to a "scheduling conflict" and says a state team will attend next week.

Meanwhile, Supv. Dave Wiganowsky has asked county officials to present plans at this meeting for child placement alternatives if the county cancels its contract with Walden Homes, the corporation that ran Spring House. Walden Homes currently operates three other juvenile group homes, for which the county pays it about $1 million a year.

Walden hired Gregory Ledbetter, convicted of molesting several boys at Spring House between 1998 and 2000; and Angela Kalscheur, who court records say has admitted to molesting at least four boys at Spring House in 2004 and 2005. Ledbetter was hired despite having been charged with similar crimes at an Indiana group home. (The charges were dropped but the abuse was later substantiated.)

Walden officials have also been asked to appear at next Tuesday's meeting.

Curiously, even now, county employees continue to defend Walden, and minimize the apparent system failure.

At one point during last week's meeting, Lynn Green, Dane County's director of human services, referred to the cases as "potential abuse," even though both former Spring House employees have admitted to molesting multiple boys in their care. (Green added that her staff was "deeply hurt" by the Isthmus article.) And Marykay Wills, Dane County's mental health and alternative care manager, repeatedly referred to the victims as "young men."

David Carlson, spokesman for Dane County's Human Services Department, says county officials first learned of the severity of the state's concerns about Walden when Isthmus posted two letters from Bloecker to the group home provider on its Web site.

Those letters accuse Walden of destroying relevant records in the midst of two police investigations, instructing employees not to cooperate with state and county investigators, and failing to properly supervise staff.

Carlson adds that county officials never knew the state was likely to revoke Spring House's license, as Marquis told Isthmus.

County officials also revealed last week that they learned of possible abuse at Spring House three months earlier than previously acknowledged. Wills stated that in March 2005, one "young man" at Spring House told his social worker, a county employee, that "all the staff and all the young men in the house were having sex."

This allegation, and others, were reported to the state, and led to a meeting between county officials and Walden director George Nestler on April 11, 2005. Walden "complied with everything" that the county asked about, Wills said. The boy subsequently recanted the sex allegation, and the complaint was not substantiated.

In a conference call with Isthmus in early January, county officials including Wills said they first learned of possible sexual abuse at Spring House on June 27, 2005, after a former resident reported sexual contact with Kalscheur. Kalscheur worked at Spring House for another full month before being fired on an unrelated matter.

Carlson said his department did not disclose the March incident to Isthmus because "it was not at all an allegation of sexual contact." But after being read Wills' comments from last week's meeting, which Carlson attended, he acknowledged: "Was the word sex or sexual contact or people having sex included? It was mentioned."

Worzala says he will create a subcommittee, including himself, Supv. Paul Rusk and Supv. Dennis O'Loughlin, to study whether the county is doing enough to ensure the safety of kids placed in group homes. If the county continues to contract with Walden Homes, Worzala says it's possible the county will attach additional conditions.

"In my opinion, there's a problem when it happens in the same place twice," Worzala says. "I think we have every right to demand anything we want from our providers."

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