“It’s like walking away in the middle of surgery,” said Stephanie Wolf, a psychologist who was fired in August. “I don’t understand how an organization that is supposed to be caring for kids would do this.”
The Tree House is a public-private nonprofit that provides free mental health services, medical assessments and victim advocacy for children who are suspected to have been physically or sexually abused. It is the only accredited child advocacy organization in Montgomery County, a suburb of 1 million people just outside the District.
Nationwide, about 1 in 5 child advocacy centers — including the Tree House — are at least partly run by a state or county government, according to the executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, which accredits the centers. Last year, the Tree House received $979,800 in funding from the county — more than 60 percent of its revenue, according to its annual report.
Mary Lombardo, a lawyer for the Tree House, said in a statement that the nonprofit takes the allegations of wrongdoing seriously. A task force comprising members of its board and representatives from the county’s Department of Health and Human Services investigated the complaints this summer, she said, and found “no evidence of fraud nor malfeasance on the part of the Tree House and its staff.”
But Lombardo said an audit is also being conducted by the county’s Office of the Inspector General. That office issued a report this month, based on a separate allegation against the Tree House, finding that the nonprofit kept personal details of the children it serves on a computer system that could be accessed by hundreds of county employees.
A spokesman for County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said the county is “very concerned” about the unprotected data and is aware of the allegations made by the fired employees. The county is working with the Tree House and other community partners to make sure children have the counseling and advocacy resources they need, spokesman Barry Hudson said.
Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, said her organization is looking into the allegations as well.
The employees who lost their jobs — and a fifth counselor who said she quit because she believed she was about to be fired — said their departures left 40 children without a licensed psychologist or social worker. Most are elementary-school-age youngsters who have experienced sexual abuse, often by a family member or someone they know. Some are in the foster-care system, the former employees said. Others remain with their families, most of whom are struggling financially and some of whom are immigrants. About 39 percent of the children served by the center are Latino, 34 percent are Black and 16 percent are White, according to the annual report.
Lombardo said the number of children left without therapists was 27, 14 of whom have been linked with clinicians at other organizations. The rest, she said, are waiting to be assigned new therapists at the Tree House.
In their complaints this summer, the employees said the Tree House inflated the number of children being served by the center in its 2019 annual report, which is submitted with grant applications and read by potential donors.
The group said 693 clients received family advocacy services, which involve things such as accompanying them to court for criminal proceedings and helping secure food. The actual number was 111, according to the figures in the internal system, said Alison Kramer-Kuhn, a psychologist who worked at the Tree House from 2016 until she resigned last month.
She and the employees who were later fired said the center conducted 162 medical exams but reported conducting 444 and inflated the number of clients receiving mental health services from 233 to 296. Kramer-Kuhn said she also raised concerns about inaccurate numbers on reports in 2017 and 2018.
The former employees — Wolf, Kramer-Kuhn, social worker Emily Picon and psychologists Renee DeBoard-Lucas and Jenna Calton — also said Tree House Executive Director Thomas Grazio and Director of Operations Loretta St. John incorrectly reported some employees’ job titles to meet grant requirements. They accused St. John of altering time sheets to exaggerate the hours staffers spent working on grant-funded projects.
“This is not about us, and has never been about us,” they wrote in a complaint sent to the Tree House board of directors in August. “We can work anywhere and help kids, but we love this agency and want it to be a place that operates in a legal and ethical fashion in all areas.”
Neither Grazio nor St. John agreed to be interviewed by The Washington Post. Lombardo, the Tree House lawyer, said the data in the annual report was accurate and the investigation of the employees’ allegations found no wrongdoing. She declined to share the center’s internal data with The Post. Lombardo denied that employees were asked to change their job titles or hours worked to meet grant requirements.
The complaints by the former employees also alleged that the Tree House failed to protect the personal information of clients — leaving DVDs that contained videos of children’s interviews in an unlocked drawer, without labeling to indicate they contained protected health information.
A separate allegation, received from a county employee on Sept. 23, led to the report by county Inspector General Megan Limarzi about a different set of privacy issues.
The employee had inadvertently come across information on Tree House clients while searching for other files, Limarzi said. When the inspector general’s office replicated the search, it found that county employees could access information on more than 500 Tree House clients, including session notes, medical and biographical information and details of abuse. The information was kept on SharePoint, the file-sharing software used by the county government.
Limarzi wrote that the inadvertent disclosure of such information “poses a significant potential risk to those exposed and the County.” The county agreed to restrict access to the Tree House SharePoint site and is reviewing who has accessed the files. Lombardo said that as soon as Tree House staffers learned about the unprotected data, they began removing the information from the platform and “implementing stronger procedures to protect the children and families that we serve.”
Wolf, Kramer-Kuhn, Picon, DeBoard-Lucas and Calton submitted their first complaint about the Tree House to the nonprofit’s board in June. They say they were skeptical of the investigation that followed — conducted by members of the board and the county Child Welfare Services agency — because Grazio’s position is officially part of the agency and he and St. John work so closely with county government.
In August, they filed another complaint with the board, reiterating their early concerns and questioning the qualifications and performance of a recently hired supervisor.
Wolf, who was asked to step down from her leadership role in May but continued treating patients, was fired by the center days after the board received the second complaint.
In September, after learning that the investigation had found no wrongdoing, Wolf and her former colleagues decided to distribute their complaints more widely. On Sept. 17, they sent them to various county agencies, the Montgomery County Council and the national accrediting agency.
By then, Kramer-Kuhn had resigned, believing she was about to be fired. On Sept. 23, Picon, DeBoard-Lucas and Calton were told that their services were no longer needed and that they had been fired, effective immediately. They said they asked to conduct final sessions with their clients but received no response from Tree House officials. Lombardo declined to discuss details of the firings.
Picon said several of the children being treated were in the middle of their “trauma narratives” when the counselors were fired — one of the most difficult parts of therapy, in which they describe, in detail, the abuse that happened to them so that they are able to move on in the healing process.
DeBoard-Lucas said she and her colleagues — who have retained a lawyer — still want to return to the Tree House and continue helping children.
“It’s not about my job satisfaction,” she said. “It’s about what happens to the kids.”