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Suspension Reduced for Probation Officer

Posted on Saturday, October 01, 2005 at 12:00PM

Senior Deputy Probation Officer Theresa Hunnewell faced a no-win situation. Only several months into her promotion as a senior deputy, she found herself with the untenable assignment of trying to find a juvenile placement facility that would accept a minor named “James.” Sounds easy enough except that James had either absconded or been kicked out of the last three placement facilities he’d been in. Truth is, James had issues. A lot of issues. Trans-gender issues. Sexual promiscuity issues. In at least one prior facility, James had demonstrated sexually assaultive behavior towards other minors younger than himself. He had also absconded from a prior facility and prostituted himself. James was on anti-depressants, James was low-functioning, and James was also turning 18 in a few months. If no placement facility accepted him, he’d be on the street probably prostituting himself again, using drugs, self-destructing. Even Hunnewell’s supervisor opined that if they could not find a viable placement for James soon, he would likely max-out in Juvenile Hall, be on the street and, potentially, wind up dead.

The easy answer was that if no facility would take him with his issues and history, then he would just have to sit in Juvenile Hall and max-out. The system would have played its part, for better or for worse. Hunnewell and her colleagues had made attempts, had done their best. If no other placement facility would take James, it would not be for lack of effort.

But Terry Hunnewell did not get into law enforcement, juvenile probation in particular, to give up that easy on a minor, even a minor as fraught with problems as James. After much research, she found a facility that would take James, a facility in Sacramento specializing in treating sexual offenders called Breaking the Cycle. As James was not a convicted sexual offender and had exhibited victim issues as well as predatory behavior, the director of the facility promised Hunnewell that they would put together an individualized program for James based on his victim issues. Hunnewell conferred with her partner and supervisor, and all agreed that this was probably James’ last chance not only at placement but also to receive any type of treatment for his myriad of issues. If they did not place him at Breaking the Cycle, all three felt that the system, and the three of them would have let him down with the potential for dire consequences. Society also would not benefit when James hit the streets with all of these issues unresolved.

Hunnewell and her partner picked up James at Juvenile Hall, drove to the airport, and along with another juvenile, flew to Sacramento. After the other juvenile was met at the airport by representatives of her placement facility, Hunnewell and her partner drove James to Breaking the Cycle. In the car, James asked if he would have to get a hair cut. Hunnewell replied that she did not know. When they arrived at the facility, James stated that he did not like the place.

They entered the facility and met with the director, who informed James and Hunnewell that yes, James would have to get his hair cut. James refused. He had long hair and although the issue really had not come up before, identified his trans-gender issues with his hair. After talking to James for some time, he agreed to the haircut. He sat in the chair. One of the program’s employees came out with a pair of scissors and electronic shears. James jumped out of his seat, flailed his arms, screamed, used profanity, and threatened to run away. As Terry and her partner tried to reassure him, he bolted for the door. Hunnewell and her partner blocked his way, grabbed him, and told him that if he did not cooperate they would have to violate his probation. He resisted. Hunnewell and her partner restrained him for his own safety as well as their own, and gently placed him on the ground. Realizing that James was blowing his last chance for treatment, let alone placement, Hunnewell looked up at the director and asked if the program would still accept James if he got his haircut. The director responded that it would, but it was up to Hunnewell. Thinking that it was in James’ best interest to enter the program, Hunnewell began cutting James’ hair while he was restrained on the ground. At first, James got one hand loose from the handcuffs and actively resisted. He then began to cry, and asked if he could keep his sheared hair. He was told that he could, and that the haircut would look much better if he sat in the chair and cooperated. He did, and the employee from the placement finished the cut.

Hunnewell and her partner left to visit some other placements. While in the car, Hunnewell phoned her supervisor and explained what happened. Although she did not go into detail, both she and her partner recall Terry relaying to her supervisor that James had been detained, and that “they” had cut his hair while he was detained, against his will. Hunnewell’s supervisor was troubled by the matter, but did not follow-up further. No use of force report was requested nor written, only the standard “Chronos” in the minor’s file briefly describing the event.

About a month later, the court-appointed counsel for James appeared in court objecting to the haircut, threatening a civil lawsuit, and demanding that his client be brought back from the facility. James was ordered back from Breaking the Cycle by the Probation Department, who never informed the program that he would not be returning. He was placed in Juvenile Hall while the department investigated the matter. He was later put into a “wrap-around” home program that he failed, absconded, was arrested for 11550 H&S and is currently on the street with at least one active warrant for his arrest. Hunnewell was summarily demoted from her probationary status as a senior deputy probation officer and, after the investigation, suspended without pay for 30 days for allegedly violating a litany of probation department policies, Welfare and Institution code sections, and Business and Professional code sections. Unfortunately, per the Memorandum of Understanding between Hunnewell’s association and the county, her demotion from her probationary promotion was not appealable. She appealed the suspension.

At the appeal hearing Hunnewell was represented by Michael Schwartz of Silver, Hadden & Silver. Schwartz brought out the fact that the department had no set procedure for training new seniors, nor policies in place for dealing with juveniles who resist placement. Though the department tried to paint James with a broad brush as a troubled kid looking for sympathy, Schwartz brought out the fact everyone felt this was James’ last chance for help, that with all of his issues, including prior sexual predatory behavior, he was a probation officer’s worst nightmare, and not just some victimized youth searching for love. Moreover, the director and her assistant from Breaking the Cycle testified credibly, as did Hunnewell’s partner, that nothing that transpired in that room rose to the level of abuse or mishandling, as all present had James’ best interests at heart. The director also testified and produced evidence that although the department had lodged a complaint with the state for the actions of the program’s representatives in the case, after a full investigation the state unfounded the charges. Hunnewell testified that although in hindsight she should have called her supervisor before the situation rose to a restrain level, as well as written a more detailed Chrono, she was in fact acting in what she considered James’ best interests and those of the department.

The arbitrator agreed, and sustained only general policy violations against her. The arbitrator concluded that (1) Hunnewell had acted in what she felt at the time was the best interests of the minor; (2) that Hunnewell had received little to no training to deal with such situations; and (3) that Hunnewell had an unblemished record of service up until that time. The suspension was ordered reduced from 30 days to only five days, with an appropriate award of back pay and benefits. For her part, Terry Hunnewell is grateful that her excellent LDF representation gave her an opportunity for vindication.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.