Crime and Justice

State hired former Maple Leaf psychologist, despite harassment allegations

Woodside

The entrance to the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex. File photo by Sara Priestap/Valley News

ESSEX — The state-run Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center hired a psychologist as its clinical chief who was the subject of harassment allegations in his previous role with Maple Leaf Treatment Associates Inc., records show.

Dr. Charles Simonds was the clinical director at Maple Leaf until the drug treatment provider unexpectedly closed in February. Several former Maple Leaf employees told VTDigger at the time that Simonds behaved inappropriately with female staff and clients.

After questions raised by VTDigger this week, the Department for Children and Families, which operates Woodside, placed Simonds on paid administrative leave Wednesday, according to Commissioner Ken Schatz.

Simonds was hired at Woodside after Maple Leaf closed, but Schatz didn’t know when. Schatz also said he wasn’t aware of the harassment allegations, and the commissioner said he was not personally involved in the hiring process, noting that DCF has 1,300 employees.

“I asked my staff to look into the situation, and based on some information I received, I decided that I wanted to have Dr. Simonds put on administrative leave,” Schatz said.

Schatz said he plans to collect more information before making a decision about whether to keep Simonds on as the clinical chief for Woodside, that includes any “publicly available information” as well as looking into “the current status of any inquiries or investigations that may be going on.”

Woodside Director Jay Simons did not respond to multiple interview requests this week. It’s unclear whether Woodside officials knew about the allegations against Simonds.

“We’ll talk more internally about our hiring practices and policies going forward,” Schatz said.

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Former Maple Leaf employees have said Simonds, who goes by his middle name Sprague, would make comments about women’s bodies, and two women said he made them so uncomfortable that they quit.

“He used physical proximity to staff and patients to keep them where he wanted so he could speak with them,” one of the women said.

Maple Leaf vigorously denied the harassment allegations against Simonds at the time. In a statement issued through a lawyer, the Maple Leaf board said the allegations were “false and defamatory.” Employees have said that Catey Iacuzzi, the former executive director, and members of the board ignored complaints.

An investigation by the Division of Licensing and Protection, which regulates health care facilities, identified similar reports of harassment and unprofessional behavior by a Maple Leaf employee, but their findings did not name the individual.

Simonds started working for Maple Leaf in May 2016 and former employees interviewed by VTDigger earlier this year said his behavior quickly led to staff departures.

A Maple Leaf administrator interviewed by DLP investigators said that in May and July of 2016 someone on staff reported “harassment and unprofessional conduct” by a co-worker, according to its report. Around that time, staff reported that the same co-worker “used a sexual term towards a resident.”

The attorney general’s office filed paperwork in Maple Leaf’s ongoing bankruptcy case alleging the drug treatment company defrauded the state’s Medicaid program for $860,000, largely by continuing to bill the program when it lacked sufficient licensed staff to be doing so.

Two former staffers said they were interviewed by investigators with the Office of Professional Regulation, which regulates Simonds’ psychology license. That license, issued in February 2015, is active and expires in January 2018.

OPR is part of the secretary of state’s office, and Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters said his office can’t comment on whether OPR is investigating a particular licensee or has investigated them in the past.

Simonds license shows no case history in OPR’s online database.

When complaints are received, OPR investigators work with office prosecutors to determine if a licensee has violated the state’s professional conduct standards.

The investigation does not become public until a charge is brought against an individual’s license. If OPR investigates and closes a case without bringing a charge, then it remains secret to protect licensees from frivolous complaints, Winters said.

However, there is an exception to confidentiality rules that allows any agency or department within state government to request investigation materials for an individual licensee, even if the inquiry was closed without charges.

Schatz would not say specifically whether he had, or planned to ask, OPR or the attorney general’s office for any information they may have on Simonds, but said broadly that, “We’re going to contact any entities that may have relevant information.”

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Simonds salary as the Woodside clinical chief is $78,000, according to the state salary database.

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Morgan True

About Morgan

Morgan True is VTDigger's Burlington bureau chief covering the city and Chittenden County. A Seattle native, he graduated from Boston University with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism before working for several publications in Massachusetts. He came to VTDigger in December 2013 from The Brockton Daily Enterprise, where he covered government, schools and hospitals in a city of about 100,000 people. Before joining The Enterprise, he worked for The Associated Press in Concord, N.H., where he served as a relief reporter in the Statehouse. He previously worked for The Quincy (Mass.) Patriot Ledger and as an intern at the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Morgan on Twitter @true_morgan

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