IN DEPTH: Northern Minnesota juvenile facility accused of failing to stop 'blatant, rampant' sex abuse

December 18, 2018 10:32 PM

A juvenile detention and treatment facility in northern Minnesota is accused of failing to stop the sexual abuse of minors in its care, according to two federal lawsuits filed Tuesday.

The suits detail two separate sexual relationships between teenage girls and employees dating back to 2014, both resulting in criminal convictions.

Jim Christmas, CEO of North Homes Inc., a private, non-profit organization licensed by the state, said he cannot yet comment on the pending litigation.

"I Craved that Affection."

One of the victims, identified in court documents as Jane Doe, told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that the sexual abuse she suffered "tore me apart."

According to a criminal complaint, she was sexually assaulted in 2014 by Devin Wood, a then-correctional officer at the juvenile detention center, on multiple occasions.

She was 15. Wood was 23.

"He would tell me, 'When you graduate this treatment, we're going to go somewhere and it's going to be just us.' And I haven't had an actual family that's mine, you know?" she said in an interview. "I craved that affection."

Wood was convicted of three counts of criminal sexual conduct after juvenile residents at North Homes told police about the girl's relationship with Wood.

Despite Wood's guilty plea, the Minnesota Department of Corrections cleared the facility of any wrongdoing.

Earlier this month, a DOC spokesperson told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, "The incidents were evaluated and while the facility was in compliance...recommendations were made to improve operations related to safety and security."

However, in the suit, North Homes is accused of regularly turning "a blind eye towards inappropriate and sexual relationships between residents and staff."

"That's not normal to groom and target juveniles," said the woman identified as Jane Doe. "It just makes me a little bit worried."

A Second Claim

The father of another girl who was sexually abused stemming from her treatment at North Homes for "serious mental health and emotional disorders" is also suing the facility.

"Somebody knew something about it. That doesn't just happen," said the father, who is identified in court documents as Robert Roe.

His then 14-year-old daughter was groomed and sexually exploited in 2016 by Marie Booth, a former social worker, who pleaded guilty the following year to first-degree criminal sexual conduct, records show. Booth, then 26, was fired and served three months in prison.

"My daughter told me that there was (sic) other workers in the facility that knew about it," said Roe.  

In the lawsuit, Booth is accused of "engaging in romantic and/or sexual activities…on a regular basis" with the teen.

Supervisors were "aware of the inappropriate relationship" but "failed to take any action on the concerns," according to the suit.

"How can the people in charge at the facility have no idea that this was going on right under their nose?" said Roe.

Five months into her treatment, the girl ran away from North Homes.

"We didn't know if we were going to get a report...she's found in a ditch somewhere or what was going on," her father said.

Two and a half months passed before police found the teenager hiding at Booth's Grand Rapids home.

She told police that "she stayed at Booth's the entire time" after leaving the facility and that they engaged in a sexual relationship, according to a criminal complaint.

In the days prior to the lawsuits being filed, Christmas, the CEO of North Homes, said in a statement, "It is not reasonable to predict a future sexual relationship would develop after her elopement from our facility. It was never determined that any staff knew of an inappropriate relationship with Marie Booth."

In a 2017 settlement reached with the state, North Homes denied any wrongdoing but it did agree that it placed "unjustified reliance and trust" in Booth, which in turn resulted in "maltreatment through neglect."

The facility was fined $1,400 by the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) as part of that settlement but did not admit any wrongdoing.

Christmas said the facility made numerous changes after the incident. They include weekly reviews of mandated reports, student grievances and any boundary concerns between youth or staff. He also says the administration has added staff, improved the screening and vetting process and increased training.

Yet, Roe said he does not think North Homes has addressed the root cause of the problem.

"They're just slapped on the wrist with a small fine and then everybody goes on with their lives," Roe said.

"If you're doing everything right, this doesn't happen," said Jeffrey Montpetit. He, Jeff Storms and Paul Dworak are the three attorneys handling the suits for Jane Doe and Robert Roe.

"We're deeply troubled by and disappointed in the very light slap on the wrist that DHS gave to North Homes. Something more severe should have happened and needs to happen," said Storms. "We know this is a problem. We know that it exists in these facilities. And so those who are tasked with supervising these environments need to actually do that."

Each lawsuit seeks $10 million or more in damages.

In a statement, Christmas called the assaults "inexcusable acts" that resulted in Booth's immediate termination.

"Sadly, we understand, and ambitiously guard against individual caregivers with ill intent and/or poor judgment," he wrote. "However, as we all know, in spite of comprehensive background screenings, extensive training, and thorough supervision, we will, and do, have the risk of staff making poor choices in regard to the care and safety of the youth we serve."

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Katherine Johnson

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