Washington County improperly placed juvenile offenders, fired employee claims

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A former Washington County juvenile probation officer has sued the county, its president judge and other officials, saying he was fired after he blew the whistle about allegedly inappropriate placement of children in detention facilities.

Common Pleas President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca also is named in the suit for allegedly recording conversations in the courthouse after juvenile court officials became suspicious about the number of recommendations for youths to be placed with Abraxas Youth & Family Services.

According to the lawsuit, David Scrip, of Monongahela, worked for 25 years as a juvenile probation officer before he was fired in February for disregarding Judge O’Dell Seneca’s orders to halt accusations that his supervisor, Dan Clements, was having a romantic relationship with Beth Stutzman, a recruiter for Abraxas.

Mr. Scrip alleges that he and other probation officers were pressured to make recommendations to the court that youths be placed in an Abraxas facility, regardless of whether it was the best place for them.

When court officials became suspicious of the unexplained increase in placements in the facility, the officials were illegally recorded through a security system that had been placed in the courthouse under orders from Judge O’Dell Seneca, according to the lawsuit.

Judge O’Dell Seneca rigged the recording system to “eavesdrop upon what was being said in the courtrooms of the Washington County courthouse,” said lawyer Noah Geary in the lawsuit, filed Monday in the Common Pleas Court and also submitted to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission.

According to county Controller Mike Namie, payments to Abraxas increased by about 15 percent during the years in question, rising from  $453,029 in 2011 to $520,901 in 2012, then $595,090 in 2013.

Mr. Scrip is claiming he was wrongfully terminated and that his civil rights were violated. He is seeking unspecified monetary damages.

A woman who answered the phone at the juvenile probation office said Mr. Clements had no comment and hung up on a reporter.

An official from the GEO Group Inc., the Boca Raton, Fla.-based parent company of Abraxas, said he couldn’t comment regarding whether Ms. Stutzman was still employed as a recruiter.

The company cited a 2012 investigation by the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts, triggered by an anonymous letter from Mr. Scrip to Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille and other court officials, detailing his concerns about inappropriate placements in Abraxas.

"Abraxas has been receiving Washington County youth placements since 1981,” said a statement from Pablo E. Paez, GEO Group vice president of corporate relations. “This alleged conflict of interest was fully investigated approximately two years ago by the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts, and the investigation did not substantiate these allegations."

Mr. Geary said the AOPC investigation was “a sham” that never sought to establish whether Mr. Clements and Ms. Stutzman were having a relationship and whether that presented a conflict. For example, Ms. Stutzman wasn’t interviewed by investigators, he said.

Mr. Geary said the results were manipulated by Judge O’Dell Seneca and Tom Jess, the director of the county Family Court Center, who was also named in the lawsuit.  Mr. Jess declined to comment.

AOPC communications coordinator Art Heinz said he could not comment about pending litigation and couldn’t confirm the existence of any past or present investigation.

Calls for comment to Judge O’Dell Seneca were directed to court administrator Patrick Grimm, who declined comment.

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.

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