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Editorial: Troubled times for Hanna Boys Center

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When state social services regulators filed a formal grievance Dec. 21 against the Hanna Boys Center, it wasn’t merely a vote of no confidence against the Catholic Church-based home for at-risk youth, besieged by allegations of abuse -- it was a piercing salvo to shut it down.

The Community Care Licensing Division of the Department of Social Services is seeking a court order to revoke Hanna’s license to operate as a group home in the wake of multiple accusations of client abuse – including charges that former clinical director Kevin Scott Thorpe, 39, had molested four children over the course of a decade, as well as allegations of sexual encounters between a former female counselor and another Hanna youth. As to the latter, the complaint also alleges Hanna officials were aware of an inappropriate relationship between the adult counselor, Angela Malinski, 22, and her 17-year-old victim, but failed to stop it. A lawsuit filed on behalf of the youth last September against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa alleges that Malinski and the boy engaged in numerous sexual encounters, some of which Hanna officials either knew about or, at the very least, suspected.

Meanwhile, last May, Hanna was faced with a whistleblower lawsuit – this one from former clinical director Timothy Norman, who claims he was fired by Hanna director Brian Farragher in a retaliatory move after voicing concerns over unabated bullying among some of the Hanna boys dating back to 2014. That this serious charge seems the lesser of Hanna’s current slate of woes is testament to where things stand for the 73-year-old institution.

It’s been a harrowing two years for the renowned boys center and its many local supporters -- a span, of course, which pales in comparison to the harrowing years some of its already at-risk youth seem to have gone through at the hands of some employees of the center.

To their credit, Farragher and Hanna officials are owning up to the fact that “young people have been hurt in our care,” as the director said in a recent op-ed to the Index-Tribune.

“We are committed to the safety of our young people and we trust this process (of contesting the license revocation) will make us better and stronger,” said Farragher.

That sense of obligation should be commended and we hope a similar dedication to responsibility and transparency is conveyed by Hanna and the Santa Rosa diocese as the multiple legal matters work their way through the courts in the coming year or years.

Farragher says Hanna will challenge the revocation and present the court with a tally of steps it has taken in recent months to better ensure the safety of its nearly 100 at-risk kids. Training staff in recognizing signs of abuse, hiring outside consultants to conduct a “risk assessment” and revamping policies regarding off-campus transport of minors are among the initiatives. We think that’s a good start. But merely a start.

Because the child-safety initiatives Hanna will present to the court should probably delve deeper than staff training and off-campus transportation policy. What clearly also needs to be addressed is how Hanna makes its personnel decisions, how it conducts oversight of its employees and how it evaluates performance and conduct from top management on down. The hiring of Malinski and promotion of Thorpe are certainly troubling; the dismissal of Norman is at the very least worthy of review.

It should also be acknowledged that institutions that cater to at-risk kids are inherently more susceptible to such violations of client trust – harbors for the vulnerable are natural magnets for predators and opportunists.

Which is why it’s imperative that Hanna confront its flaws with transparency not only to the courts, but to the court of public opinion; this transparency calls for both an open mind, and an open heart.

Hanna describes itself as having been a “haven for hope” for troubled youth since opening its doors in Menlo Park in 1945 and, more locally, breaking ground in Sonoma Valley in 1948. In the years and decades since, it has literally helped thousands of boys from troubled circumstances safely tread the delicate teen years toward fulfilling, responsible and happy adult lives. It’s one of the reasons its support in the Valley is so prodigious.

Longtime Hanna regent James Lynch wrote in an op-ed in the I-T last year that the boys center’s 70-plus years of invaluable service to local youth shouldn’t be overlooked, especially at a time when the state grapples with its fate following the recent allegations.

The Index-Tribune agrees and we firmly hope Hanna will right its ship, and weather this storm. Its seven decades of “hope” shouldn’t be erased by these recent instances of despair.

As Lynch wrote: “Hanna’s healing mission is built on a foundation of redemption, hope and trust. Violating the central code of honor and respect between residents and staff goes against everything Hanna stands for.”

And for supporters, alumni, families and the boys it serves, the time is now for Hanna to show everything it stands for once again.

– Jason Walsh, editor

– John Burns, publisher