Between July 2001 and April 2004, Tam Smithback supervised counselors at the now-closed Spring House group home for troubled teenagers on Madison's east side. Smithback began shortly after Gregory Ledbetter left, and before Angela Kalscheur was hired by Walden Homes, the nonprofit corporation that ran the home. Both Ledbetter and Kalscheur, it later emerged, took advantage of their opportunities to molest boys in their care.
After leaving, Smithback stayed in touch with former colleagues. She says, in an e-mail to Isthmus, that they voiced complaints about 'Angela's inappropriate behavior with clients and the failures of supervisors to address it.'
This squares with allegations made in letters sent to Walden Homes last fall by state licensing chief Diane Bloecker, after Isthmus began making inquiries. According to Bloecker, 'All interviewed staff identified at least one instance, if not more, when staff shared concerns about Ms. Kalscheur's behavior' directly with supervisors.
Smithback calls Bloecker's account 'very accurate,' blaming some problems on overstretched supervisors: 'We were always told there was no money, and to 'single-staff' as much as possible.'
The oversight of group homes run by Walden is now under review by Dane County politicians. On Feb. 6, the county's Health and Human Needs Committee, following up on an earlier session with county staff, spent two hours quizzing representatives of Walden Homes and officials from the state Department of Health and Family Services.
The committee's chairman, Supv. David Worzala, launched the probe after learning about the cases from Isthmus ('Predators at Work,' 1/19/07). Lynn Green, the county's director of human services, had not informed her oversight committee that nearly a dozen teens in county care were sexually abused.
Remarkably, to date, none of the three entities ' the county, state or Walden Homes ' has admitted mistakes in hiring procedures, staff monitoring or abuse investigation. And each agency is taking great pains not to publicly criticize the others.
For example, in her testimony last week, Bloecker stressed that 'Walden has always been very receptive' to recommendations. She did not mention, until asked about them, her two highly critical letters, which also accused Walden of destroying personnel records and instructing staff not to cooperate with state investigators.
As George Nestler, executive director of Walden Homes, read an 11-page statement to the committee last week, his voice cracked with emotion, and he broke down near the end.
'What has taken place has been a terribly painful experience not only for the children involved but for those of us who care for them as well,' he said. 'To our great consternation,' he continued, two employees 'violated our code of conduct and engaged in reprehensible behavior,' despite 'strict policies.'
Last year, Ledbetter was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes. Last week, Kalscheur pleaded no contest to felony repeated sexual assault of a child and misdemeanor sex with a child 16 and older. She's awaiting sentencing.
Walden has operated group homes in Dane County since 1971. It currently has three facilities, which now employ 33 staff and provide care for 18 children, ages 12 to 17. In 2006, Walden received about $1 million in county tax dollars.
Over the years, Nestler says Walden has served more than 3,000 children. Most have been found delinquent by judges and suffer from serious emotional and behavioral problems.
Despite assurances from Green that Dane County has been pleased with Walden's performance, records obtained by Isthmus show internal dissatisfaction. In February 2006, Walden raised its monthly rate by 80%, from $3,193 to $5,735 per resident. The county's Neil Gleason wrote that 'at this new rate, we would do well to simply abandon them.' To which another manager, Marykay Wills, replied, 'We're aware of their incredible rate increase.... We will use them very little ' we haven't been all that happy with Sojourn and Spring House anyway.'
County officials are now weighing whether to affirm current oversight procedures, attach stricter conditions to Walden's contract, or cease doing business with Walden. If necessary, youths now at Walden facilities could be sent to out-of-county group homes, as are a majority of the county's group-home placements.
At last week's hearing, Nestler and high-profile Madison attorney Lester Pines aggressively defended Walden's actions. They said Walden acted swiftly to isolate Kalscheur upon learning of allegations against her, and have since instituted 'a number of safeguards' to prevent a recurrence.
Among these: installing security cameras, reviewing personnel policies and work rules, developing a sexual-abuse training program, and instituting 'psychological screening' for new employees. The latter, according to Walden board member and psychologist Michael Spierer, will help identify 'psychological characteristics that might serve as warnings or red flags about individuals, and then lead us to look further into their backgrounds.'
But Pines told the committee no system can guarantee total safety and sought to deflect criticism of Walden by pointing to other cases, like those involving sexual contact between inmates and guards at Oakhill prison. Pines even declared, 'Walden Home's position is that it has been victimized' by Kalscheur's behavior and may seek restitution.
The key question, said Pines, is this: 'Was there something systemic about the supervision in the home which facilitated or in some way countenanced this behavior, or which ignored obvious signs that this behavior was going on?' His answer: 'Certainly, that charge cannot be leveled against the management and supervisors of Walden Homes.'
In fact, though, Smithback's e-mail and Bloecker's letters allege that officials failed to adequately respond to complaints about Kalscheur's behavior. Instead, Bloecker wrote, Nestler attacked the credibility of the kids, while another supervisor penned a memo to thwart investigators' access to staff information. Her conclusion was that, 'given the number of complaints,' Walden should have taken additional steps.
Records recently released to Isthmus reveal a wide range of allegations against Spring House staff during Kalscheur's tenure. In March 2005, a county social worker reported being told by two separate boys ' one current and one former resident ' of sexual activity between staff and clients. The report says one boy subsequently recanted and the other denied making the statement. (County officials initially told Isthmus they first learned of such allegations in late June of that year; they later said 'one young man' reported an allegation in March but quickly recanted.)
Other records allege that Kalscheur gave backrubs to one former resident and visited another in juvenile jail, and that two other employees sometimes took residents to their homes.
Pines told the committee that, once credible allegations against Kalscheur were made, Madison police investigators instructed Walden not to 'get in the middle of the investigation,' thus tying its hands. (Kalscheur was fired a month later for inappropriately visiting a former resident.) And both Pines and Nestler assured the committee that Walden never had any inkling of sexual contact between Ledbetter and residents.
But in fact, Ledbetter's conduct did raise some red flags, according to Nestler's own statements in police reports obtained by Isthmus. During the time he was employed by Walden Homes, Nestler related, Ledbetter was investigated for allegedly taking a resident to his apartment and showing him a marijuana pipe. Nestler also said Ledbetter 'seemed to want to be the kids' friends versus a counselor' and was 'not holding the kids accountable for their actions.'
To this day, Walden claims ignorance about the extent to which Ledbetter molested boys at Spring House. Said Nestler, 'We have some police reports but we haven't gone through the details.'
Walden Homes hired Ledbetter in 1998, less than two years after he was arrested and charged with 43 counts of child seduction at a group home in Indiana. Those charges were dropped after an accuser recanted, but in 2005 Madison police found videotapes showing Ledbetter molesting Indiana group-home boys.
Whether Walden conducted a criminal background check on Ledbetter or checked his references in Indiana is unknown. That's because, according to one of Bloecker's letters, Walden destroyed 'all terminated staff files and discharged resident files' in December 2005 ' in the middle of both the Ledbetter and Kalscheur police investigations.
Moreover, Dane County officials say even a reference call to the group home that fired Ledbetter for molesting boys may not have generated cause for concern. Lynn Green has told the committee that Dane County, on advice of its counsel, will only verify employment dates in reference checks, not comment on former employees.
Despite their reticence to criticize, state officials told the committee that Walden is on a 'maximum monitoring plan' and that there is 'ongoing concern' with all Walden properties. Another serious allegation, said state regulator Jill Chase, could result in a revocation 'for the entire corporation.' To date, the only penalty against Walden has been a $1,000 state fine, the maximum under state licensing laws, in the Kalscheur case.
Warzala's committee has begun to identify possible conditions on future Walden copntracts. It may mandate credit checks to identify past addresses for background checks, or require that at least two adults work on each shift. A task force of county supervisors will meet to discuss what happens next.
'We're not done with this by any means,' says Supv. Dave Wiganowsky, a committee member. 'We've got constituents to answer to.'