By Anne Stanton
Traverse City Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY — Northern Lakes Community Mental Health’s board members reluctantly voted to issue a written reprimand to the agency’s leader for putting physically and mentally disabled clients at risk of harm on public buses.
The reprimand for Gregory Paffhouse, chief executive officer, is in response to a state Department of Community Health recommendation last month.
“I for one, with somewhat of a heavy heart, support saying, ‘Let’s settle the matter and move forward,’” said board member Randy Kamps at a meeting this week.
Northern Lakes provides services for adults with mental illness and developmental disabilities, as well as for children with serious emotional problems in a six-county area.
For years, Northern Lakes paid Bay Area Transportation Authority to transport disabled adult clients to and from three Traverse City training and work sites. In August 2011, a disabled woman was repeatedly beaten and choked by another Northern Lakes client during a 90-minute ride.
The assault prompted an investigation that unearthed dozens of past incidents of self harm, assaults, and inappropriate sexual behavior. Jon Bennett, who formerly advocated for the rights of Northern Lake clients, reported to the state Department of Community Health that some Northern Lakes employees had impeded his investigation and retaliated against him in violation of state law.
Bennett was fired in October of 2012. He subsequently filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Paffhouse and Northern Lakes CMH. But Paffhouse countered that Bennett’s firing owed to his long-standing conflicts with Northern Lakes and adult foster care home staff.
Three months after Bennett was fired, the state Department of Community Health reported a historic pattern of retaliation and harassment against Bennett. The report cited extensive documentation of complaints against Bennett, but “minimal evidence” that Paffhouse had ever looked into them. The state report asked the board for a remedial plan.
On Thursday, the board also approved a proposal for Paffhouse to take leadership training on how to promptly handle organizational dysfunction. The board will hear monthly reports from Paffhouse and a board subcommittee on issues of client rights.
Kamps said he now has a much improved perspective of client rights. He hopes that Paffhouse’s training will teach him how to allow valid dissent at the agency and work through it.
“It’s a very delicate balance,” he said.
The board last month refused to discipline Paffhouse because it believed he took appropriate action after learning of the bus attack on Oct. 25. Yet the state maintained he should be held accountable for leaving vulnerable riders unsupervised until Nov. 30.
“I think this is all borderline ridiculous,” said board member Jack Mahank, adding “we are spending far too much time and energy beating ourselves up for the past. It’s time to move on.”
Carol Serylo, a Northern Lakes client of more than 20 years, spoke in strong support of Paffhouse.
“I wanted you to know what Greg means to me, and how far I’ve come in my life because of this agency,” she said.