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Duluth's Hills Youth and Family Services sued over abuse

The Hills Youth and Family Services in Duluth has been sued over the alleged sexual abuse of several boys in its care. An eight-count complaint was filed this week in State District Court in Duluth by a father on behalf of his 14-year-old son, wh...

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The Hills Youth and Family Services in Duluth has been sued over the alleged sexual abuse of several boys in its care.

An eight-count complaint was filed this week in State District Court in Duluth by a father on behalf of his 14-year-old son, who reportedly was victimized. The civil action names both the Hills and the alleged perpetrator, Mark David Painter, as defendants.

The suit alleges Hills was negligent in its supervision of Painter, failing to exercise care that would have prevented the abuse and misrepresenting itself as a facility where children would be protected. The suit seeks unspecified damages in excess of $50,000.

"They're pretty well devastated by this," said Tim Lessman, the Mankato, Minn., attorney who filed the complaint. "Our client has been seeking counseling for it. This is going to be an ongoing, lifetime issue for him."

The Hills offers residential and day treatment for youth with behavioral or mental health needs - some with substance abuse issues - and many who are court-ordered to be there. Formerly known as Woodland Hills, it is based at 4321 Allendale Ave.

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CEO Jeff Bradt addressed the litigation in a brief written statement.

"The Hills' hiring process includes pre-employment fingerprinting and background checks," he said. "A Sept. 21, 2018, investigative memorandum by the Minnesota Department of Human Services concerning a matter related to the lawsuit concluded that The Hills followed professional standards and responded promptly and appropriately on learning of alleged misconduct by a former employee."

Painter, 28, was arrested and charged in July with sexually abusing at least five boys ranging in age from 13-17 while working at the facility, where he had been hired in March.

The allegations came to light after three boys who ran away from the facility reported to police that Painter, who was hired as a youth counselor in March, sexually coerced them with contraband including cigarettes, drugs, tattoo supplies and access to a cellphone or laptop.

Andrew Leone, a Twin Cities attorney representing Painter in his criminal case, said his client was served with a summons and complaint, but noted the document did not provide any new information beyond what has already been alleged.

"He's certainly maintaining his innocence and is eager to let the court process play its part and ultimately show that the allegations are unfounded," Leone said Thursday.

Lessman said the suit was not only about money. The attorney said he hoped it would "serve as a warning" to the Hills and anyone entrusted with the care of vulnerable youth.

"Hopefully this will open up eyes to other changes they need to make," he said. "Talking with our client and getting and idea of what happened, it sounds like Mr. Painter had a little too much free range around the place. I think he was hired in March and essentially was left to his own devices to commit these crimes. I'm not an expert on this facility and can't say what changes need to be made, but it does seem like something needs to take place."

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The Human Services report found Painter responsible for the abuse and disqualified him from future work in similar fields. The agency found that while Painter violated numerous policies, other staff members acted appropriately.

The report said the Hills later completed an internal review and made changes to "the physical plant, staffing practices, training, facility culture, technology, programming for youth, communication and critical incident review procedures."

Painter is facing five felony counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. As Leone said he just received about 600 pages of discovery, a hearing this week was continued to Dec. 18.

Related Topics: WOODLAND
Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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