Traverse City Record-Eagle

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February 10, 2013

Man says firing was retaliation for report

TRAVERSE CITY — Trouble brewed on the buses for months, but it took a terrible beating of a seriously disabled woman for officials to take serious notice.

An Aug. 22, 2011, assault on a local public bus triggered a widespread investigation and report that faulted Northern Lakes Community Mental Health for failing to protect the woman and 66 other CMH clients during their rides.

Jonathan Bennett, the man who probed the assaults and wrote the report, subsequently was fired from his job as Northern Lakes' director of the Office of Recipient Rights. He contends his ouster came in retaliation for his findings.

Bennett recently filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Northern Lakes, his former employer.

"I loved my work and it's a real loss," said Bennett, who was fired in October after 15 years on the job.

Greg Paffhouse, Northern Lakes Community Mental Health's chief executive officer, refuted Bennett's allegations.

"I still like Jon as a person," Paffhouse said. "But I became aware of how broad and how deep the conflict was between him and a large number of people. The ability to do our jobs was being compromised and would be increasingly compromised."

'Beaten horrifically'

Bennett received news of the August 2011 assault a month later, on Sept. 23, when an official from Grand Traverse Industries told him a woman was "beaten horrifically" by another Northern Lakes client on a Bay Area Transportation Authority bus.

Northern Lakes pays BATA to transport developmentally disabled clients back and forth to GTI from where they live, usually in adult foster care homes. GTI provides day programs, training and jobs at two different sites.

A BATA surveillance tape showed that over a 90-minute bus ride, the woman was choked, grabbed, and hit more than 100 times. The bus driver appeared not to notice.

The woman, who already lost one arm in a prior accident, was helpless. She couldn't cry for help or report the attack because of her profound physical and mental limitations. A GTI staff member noticed the woman's injuries when changing her diaper, Bennett said.

The woman's service plan — which lists a client's treatment and support needs — required she have supervision "at all times." Yet a bus aide — effectively a chaperone provided by Northern Lakes — had never been assigned to her.

Northern Lakes staff met with the woman's family after the attack; she was removed from the bus at once, and the offender was banned from BATA on Aug. 24.

Bennett suspected more clients were at risk and deepened his investigation. He found about two dozen incidents on BATA buses over 18 months, including disrobing, disconnecting bus wires, fondling, and throwing objects.

In a January 2011 incident, one client broke into a bus biohazard clean-up kit, ingested cleaner and threw up for 30 minutes. Other clients were medically fragile, according to Bennett's Dec. 27 report.

In all, 67 of the 154 bus riders already had service plans that required supervision; none had bus aides.

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