A 15-year-old girl who ran away from an Itasca County mental health treatment center was sexually abused by an adult counselor who allegedly harbored the girl in her home, according to a recent state investigation report.
The girl was missing for nearly 2 ½ months last fall before Grand Rapids police discovered her in the garage of Marie Marna Booth, 27, a former counselor at the center.
The Itaskin Center, a 62-bed treatment facility that employed Booth, was cited for neglect after state investigators concluded that multiple staff members failed to report concerns about an inappropriate relationship between the adult counselor and the girl, who is not identified in the report.
The incident follows a series of recent breakdowns at state-licensed facilities for children and teens, and has prompted fresh questions about staff professionalism and legal accountability.
"We are not even close to holding anyone accountable in these cases," said Nancy Fitzsimons, a professor of social work at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
In an interview Monday, the Grand Rapids city attorney questioned why Booth has yet to be charged with a sexual offense three months after she was found with a minor. When the girl was found, she told police that she had an intimate "sexual relationship" with Booth, the state report said. However, Booth has been charged only with one felony count of deprivation of parental and custodial rights.
"We hope the Itasca County attorney's office takes this case seriously and prosecutes this case to the fullest extent of the law," said Chad Sterle, the city attorney. "There has not been a good answer as to why she has not been charged with more serious offenses, such as criminal sexual conduct."
Jim Christmas, president and chief executive of North Homes Children and Family Services, parent organization of the facility, said the case has led to a "renewed emphasis" among staff on their obligations as caregivers and mandatory reporters of maltreatment.
"The conduct of our former staff member in this matter was contrary to her responsibilities to our client, to her legal obligations and to the standards and procedures we set for ourselves," he said.
Mental health counselors say children placed in such facilities are particularly vulnerable to maltreatment because they often have long histories of trauma and abuse, and arrive seeking attention and guidance from adult counselors. When those adults abuse their authority, the maltreatment investigations often are routed through social service agencies rather than county prosecutors, resulting in light or no criminal charges, social workers say. Even in cases of sexual abuse, the civil fines often are no more than $1,000.
Hid in a cubbie
The girl, who suffered from depression and anxiety, was seen running away from the treatment center near midnight on Aug. 1 with a garbage bag of belongings. While police and the girl's family searched Grand Rapids and the surrounding woods, the girl was staying in Booth's home. To avoid being seen by a relative of Booth, she hid in "storage cubbies" and would urinate in a cup rather than go to the bathroom, according to the state report.
Still, there are questions about why employees at the center did not disclose more to local police. In interviews with state investigators, multiple employees raised concerns about Booth's "boundaries" with the girl and behavior suggesting they had a close relationship. Staff noticed the girl going on long walks with Booth and saw that the counselor would visit the girl on her days off. When confronted by one staff person, Booth allegedly said, "What [was] wrong with being close with a youth?" according to the state report.
Yet Booth did not appear to be a suspect in the girl's disappearance. For 2 ½ months, several law enforcement officers and the girl's relatives conducted searches in Grand Rapids and in nearby towns and wooded areas. She was only discovered after a staff member spotted Booth and the girl at a local park and called police. According to the state report, a staff person with "significant supervisory and administrative authority" was aware that the girl may have been in a relationship with Booth and staying at her home, but failed to report this as required.
"There were some major red flags here that went ignored," said Roberta Opheim, state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities.
When law enforcement officers searched Booth's residence, they found the girl hiding in Booth's garage. In the counselor's vehicle, officers found a garbage bag with "multiple pieces of [the girl's] clothing," photographs of the girl, and a greeting card with her name on it.
The counselor has been fired from the center and disqualified by the state from further work with state-licensed programs for vulnerable adults and children. Another staff member has also been disqualified. In addition, the facility was fined $1,000 for neglect and $400 for failing to report maltreatment.
Christmas said North Homes disagrees with the state's finding of neglect and that no other staff failed to report maltreatment. He said the agency plans to appeal these findings before an administrative law judge.
The Itasca case comes just months after a 17-year-old girl was thrown to the ground by staff at an Anoka County juvenile facility so hard that she burst blood vessels in both eyes and broke a bone in her face. And last spring, a 25-year-old male caregiver, who was on a state non-hiring list, was accused of sexually abusing a teenage girl at a treatment center in Minnetonka.