A former employee of EMQ FamiliesFirst in Davis has filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the troubled group home, claiming he was fired after blowing the whistle on staffing and safety deficiencies at the 2100 Fifth St. facility.
Robert K. Oldham says he was terminated in January despite three successful years of physical education and classroom teaching at FamiliesFirst, which came under public scrutiny in June following the arrests of two of its teenage residents on suspicion of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl at a local park.
“Mr. Oldham asserts that instead of hiring more staff to rectify these violations, EMQ FamiliesFirst Inc. opted alternatively to ‘fire the messenger,’ ” Davis attorney Mary-Alice Coleman, who represents Oldham, said in a statement announcing the civil lawsuit’s filing Thursday in Yolo Superior Court.
EMQ FamiliesFirst representatives declined to comment on the legal action when reached Friday.
“We don’t comment on active litigation,” spokeswoman Kristine Austin said.
The civil lawsuit marks the latest blow to the embattled group home, which provides housing, education and mental-health treatment to children between the ages of 6 and 15.
Since reports of the problems at FamiliesFirst came to light, the California Department of Social Services has taken steps to revoke the group home’s license, while the Yolo County Department of Alcohol, Drugs and Mental Health has nullified its certification to provide mental-health services to children covered by Medi-Cal.
Both agencies cited problems with safety and staffing at FamiliesFirst, including frequent instances of children leaving the facility without permission. Davis police have said the runaways and criminal activity involving some of the home’s residents generated more than 500 calls for service from the department between Jan. 1 and early June.
Oldham claims in the 19-page lawsuit that his and others’ personal safety was compromised by low staffing levels at FamiliesFirst, despite some of the residents’ challenging behavioral histories.
Starting in late 2011 or early 2012, staff was being instructed to avoid the use of physical force to control students, “regardless if self-defense is warranted or otherwise justified,” the lawsuit says. At about the same time, “numerous incidents involving violence by students or threats of violence by students took place and necessitated plaintiff’s personal involvement and/or assistance.”
Complaints and concerns addressed to his superiors about the unsafe working conditions “fell on deaf ears,” the suit says, and Oldham claims he was reprimanded several times and ultimately fired for “improper contact” with students who were acting out aggressively toward him or others.
Darrell Evora, EMQ FamiliesFirst’s president and CEO, announced in early June that he had boosted staffing and security levels at the group home and hired an independent expert to inspect the facility and review its policies and procedures.
“We’re going to take whatever steps necessary to ensure that the kids are safe and the community is safe,” Evora told The Enterprise last month.
The nonprofit organization also is fighting the state’s move to revoke its license, saying in response papers that because the alleged crimes cited took place away from the Fifth Street campus, the state lacks jurisdiction in the case.
A hearing to decide the matter will be held before an administrative law judge but has not yet been scheduled. The state’s action also targets FamiliesFirst clinical director Audrie Meyer and capitol region executive director Gordon Richardson and seeks to bar them from future employment in a licensed group-home setting.
Meanwhile, roughly a dozen children remain at the group home, which has the capacity for 63 youths.
The two teens accused of raping the 11-year-old girl are being prosecuted in Yolo County juvenile court, along with a 17-year-old Davis boy who allegedly sexually assaulted a 13-year-old female FamiliesFirst resident at an East Davis home.
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene