The Public Eye

Vaunted group home for sex-trafficking victims closes amid state scrutiny; big donors pull back

Jenny Williamson, left, talks with a staff member at Courage House in September 2015. The facility, which Williamson founded as a group home for young sex-trafficking victims, has closed amid state scrutiny.
Jenny Williamson, left, talks with a staff member at Courage House in September 2015. The facility, which Williamson founded as a group home for young sex-trafficking victims, has closed amid state scrutiny. lsterling@sacbee.com

For years, Jenny Williamson of Granite Bay has heralded her dream of rescuing girls from sex traffickers, spreading the Gospel while raising hundreds of thousands to open a unique group home in the Sacramento region.

In a cascade of colorful interviews with local and national media, Williamson has described the God-inspired “vision” that led her in 2011 to open Courage House, a state-licensed group home for six girls under age 18 in the rolling countryside north of the city.

With her trademark Southern accent and down-home demeanor, Williamson has regaled audiences with the litany of horrors these girls suffer, and the shock she felt upon learning that sex trafficking was considered a dire problem in the Sacramento region.

Fundraising by her Rocklin-based nonprofit organization, Courage Worldwide Inc., is actively continuing – another big event is scheduled next weekend. What is missing from the group’s website is this:

Courage House is currently closed. It serves no clients at all in California.

Representatives for the last four clients living in the group home were given a seven-day notice on June 6 that their girls would have to move out, according to the state’s licensing file.

Public documents show that Williamson voluntarily closed the six-bed facility, effective June 14, amid a flurry of state inspections that found numerous violations, including inadequate staffing levels and no current administrator working at the home. Williamson is appealing many of the citations, and is adamant that the closure is only temporary. The facility retains its license.

The closure leaves only one operating Courage House facility in the world, in the East African country of Tanzania, where Williamson said four girls are being served.

Courage Worldwide Inc., meanwhile, has grown from net assets of about $800,000 in 2012 to $1.4 million in 2015, according to federal tax information for the Christian nonprofit group. Most of the clients at the Sacramento-area facility were enrolled by social workers or probation officers from various California counties, netting the facility about $9,100 a month per girl in government support.

As Courage Worldwide president and CEO, Williamson was paid $115,000 in 2015, according to the organization’s 990 tax form.

After years of glowing news reports in multiple media outlets, including The Sacramento Bee, the facility’s abrupt closure and surrounding regulatory troubles caught some business leaders off guard.

Dan McVeigh, the new president of Rotary Club of Sacramento, said he and other members only recently learned about the facility’s shutdown and have decided to hold back a planned donation until they can “make sure this is a proper use of our funds.”

Rotary Club of Sacramento had named Courage Worldwide as one of two beneficiaries of this year’s Pony Express Marathon, which wound its way May 1 through downtown. The amount raised still is being tallied .

Courage House ceased operating 43 days later. However, the Courage Worldwide website still contains an announcement that the Rotary pledge will go toward an aggressive expansion plan on the 52-acre property that calls for 10 new cottages with an envisioned capacity of 60 more girls.

Ground has not been broken.

“If she can’t move forward,” said McVeigh, “we’re not going to be sending her money.”

Another major backer, Dignity Health, also told The Bee last week it has “put a hold” on its own ambitious fundraising plan. In January, the health care giant announced a fundraising drive through Mercy Foundation to raise $530,000 among employees and other community members to build one cottage on the Courage Worldwide property .

Contacted by The Bee, Dignity Health spokeswoman Melissa Jue said she was unaware that Courage House had closed, even temporarily. On Thursday, Jue released the following statement:

“Dignity Health and Mercy Foundation remain committed to ending human trafficking by partnering with other organizations dedicated to this cause. Dignity Health has put a hold on fundraising efforts through Mercy Foundation for Courage House.”

Williamson told The Bee on Wednesday that she had informed all outside groups raising money for Courage House about the current circumstances. She emphasized that her board of directors recently voted to temporarily close the facility, taking a deliberate “pause” in operations to prepare for new state rules governing group homes that take effect next year.

It was not until Friday – two days after her interview with The Bee and nearly 10 weeks after the facility's closure – that Williamson posted a lengthy memo on Courage Worldwide’s Facebook page explaining the shutdown, complaining about the state’s enforcement actions and asking for more financial support.

State documents show that licensing officials were notified on June 6 by Courage Worldwide executive Melissa Herrmann that the facility was temporarily closing because “there is not enough staff to meet the needs of the clients in care,” according to a June 7 licensing report.

By then, regulatory problems were mounting.

Former employees raise concerns

Courage House was cited 16 times in the first six months of this year – more than any other previous year – for violations that included confidentiality breeches and infringement of residents’ personal rights.

Of those 16 citations, 10 were classified by the state as Type A, or serious enough to have an immediate impact on clients’ health, safety or personal rights, according to records kept by Community Care Licensing, a division of the California Department of Social Services.

State records show that Courage House also ran afoul of state licensing officials this year for repeating violations after being warned and cited earlier for the same conduct, resulting in monetary penalties.

Williamson said the majority of citations this year are baseless and unfair and often penalize the organization for taking extreme precautions to keep girls safe, such as denying cellphones (one example of a state-issued “personal rights” violation).

She routinely asks news media not to identify the precise location of Courage House – or even the county in which it is located – to prevent traffickers from retrieving their victims. Even so, she said, she was cited by the state twice for failing to post the facility’s license number on its website, a requirement she said would make the group home’s address publicly available.

Williamson said she is appealing many of this year’s citations, providing The Bee with documentation refuting the state’s charges.

“We’ve always had adequate staffing,” she said.

Some former staff members disagreed with that assessment.

In interviews with The Bee, six ex-employees and a former business associate described a volatile environment for workers and high turnover among line staff at Courage House. The former workers singled out Williamson as a temperamental leader with no child-development background who micromanaged her trained staff and became so swept up in her own publicity and expansion plans that the core mission began to falter.

The workers described a corporate organization in which staff members were frequently countermanded or abruptly fired for raising questions about “the vision,” or for expressing concerns over the corporate office’s sharing of clients’ confidential information in fundraising or publicity efforts. Several ex-employees said they were upset by the use of identifiable images of Courage House girls on the company’s Facebook page.

I had been there long enough to watch other staff people disappear. You go to a meeting there and you never come back.

Lydia Leanos, former Courage House staffer

DeAnne Brining, a licensed marriage and family therapist who contracted with Courage House for nearly three years, was one of three former employees who agreed to let her name be used for this article, with the others citing concerns about professional ramifications.

Brining said she found it hypocritical that corporate executives were strident about protecting the group home address but routinely “paraded the girls around” for marketing purposes. In one case, she said, the clients were interviewed by a radio station and their public school teacher recognized their voices, commenting on it later in class.

“That in my mind is beyond hurtful, it’s abusive,” said Brining, a trauma specialist who has worked for years in the juvenile justice system.

In the past nine months, the state has investigated allegations of the improper use of girls’ images and disclosure of confidential information, and issued four citations to Courage House demanding corrective action.

In January, the state issued a Type A citation after a photo of a client was posted on the corporate Facebook page showing a distinctive tattoo across her face.

A second Type A citation in June found that information shared in therapy had been disclosed to other residents.

Arlicia Lorentty, who was a social worker/case manager in the home in 2015, said some girls “expressed discomfort” with how their stories and images were being used by corporate leaders.

“Everything was a photo op,” she said.

Lorentty, who is studying to get her master’s of social work in another state, recalled that Williamson would schedule tours at Courage House for potential investors and the girls would be uprooted and taken off campus.

The state issued two Type A citations against Courage House in September 2015 for using the group home “as a business meeting location,” providing tours and hosting lunches for community pastors, activities the state deemed disruptive to the girls.

Lorentty said she decided to quit Courage House after about five months and gave a two-week notice in July 2015 to ease the transition for the young clients, whom she informed of her decision. Two days later, she said, she was summoned to corporate headquarters and told she had broken protocol by telling the girls and was asked to turn in her keys and phone immediately.

“It was so childish,” she said. “These girls have huge attachment issues. Once they start to attach and that relationship is ripped from them – that’s traumatizing. Here are healthy people who love and care for them, and they’re ripped out of their lives for no rhyme or reason.”

Lydia Leanos, who worked at Courage House for three years, said she was summoned to corporate offices in June 2014 and fired after she expressed concerns to her boss about Williamson’s leadership abilities.

“I had been there long enough to watch other staff people disappear,” she said. “You go to a meeting there and you never come back.”

A skilled equestrian and former rodeo queen, Leanos had been overseeing the riding program at the group home and, according to fellow staff members, had been a favorite of the girls.

“I was told, ‘You’ve lost your sparkle,’” she said.

Dreams of expansion

In an interview last week at her Rocklin corporate headquarters (she recently closed a second corporate office nearby), Williamson expressed surprise that she has such detractors.

Joined by her pro-bono media adviser, Bill Halldin, Williamson acknowledged the organization made mistakes with some clients’ images. It was unintentional, she explained, and the missteps were subtle, such as the tattoo case.

She characterized some violations as absurd. For example, she said, the state cited the facility for not allowing the girls religious freedom. Staff members told The Bee that these issues surfaced when girls were not given a choice of churches to attend, and were taken exclusively to a Christian church in Elk Grove whose leaders and congregation have been heavily involved in Courage House.

State licensing records confirm this account, and the facility was cited for the practice in November 2015.

Williamson, however, said the matter is more complex. She said she also was dinged recently by the state for violating a client’s religious freedom by refusing a request by one girl who had been ritualistically abused to practice Satanism.

She said she has appealed, and was backed by a local physician who wrote to the state about the potential damage of Satanic words and rituals on traumatized girls.

Williamson disputed any notion that she capriciously fires staff.

“We don’t fire people that do a good job,” she said. “We do fire people who do not uphold the rights of the children and the core values of the organization. That is true.”

The Bee’s review of state licensing records show that five individuals have been identified as the program’s administrator since 2011. The state cited Courage House in August 2015 for not having a current social worker; the position was listed as “open” in two personnel sheets submitted to licensing in 2015 and 2016.

We don’t fire people that do a good job. We do fire people who do not uphold the rights of the children and the core values of the organization. That is true.

Jenny Williamson, founder, Courage House

There is little dispute that Jenny Williamson’s “vision” – which she has said came to her in church – was well timed. In the last 15 years, the issue of sex trafficking has become the topic du jour nationwide among politicians, law enforcement officials, religious leaders, sports figures, well-heeled donors and Hollywood celebrities.

Williamson is pictured on her corporate website alongside former San Francisco Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt and actresses Julianne Moore and Eva Longoria.

During this period, the Sacramento region was increasingly portrayed by law enforcement as a hub for sex trafficking, with its confluence of major freeways.

The money soon followed.

Bayside Church, a mega-church in Granite Bay, donated more than $300,000 in 2011 to underwrite a new home in Courage Worldwide’s expansion project. The money was raised during a single Easter service at then-Arco Arena that was attended by 14,000 people, said Jim Holst, outreach pastor at Bayside Church.

Holst said last week the church is not concerned that ground has yet to be broken, or that the local group home currently is closed.

“We’re excited about getting a cottage built,” said Holst. “We’re fine with being patient.”

Williamson’s expansion dreams have not stopped with the Sacramento region. She also has announced plans to open homes in her home state of Mississippi and in Texas.

Minutes obtained by The Bee of an August 2015 board meeting showed that members discussed the possibility of moving the home office “to a different geographical area due to the difficulty of doing business in California.” At a subsequent December meeting, minutes show, the board talked specifically about relocating the Courage Worldwide “international headquarters” to Austin while maintaining a regional office in Northern California.

The minutes show the group discussed the advantages of moving to the Texas state capital, as the organization “could gain national exposure faster there than in Sacramento, more favorable business community, dot-com emphasis, preferred health care environment, etc.”

Williamson downplayed the Mississippi and Texas initiatives in her interview last week, saying those proposals are “only in the talking stages.”

As for Northern California, Williamson said she hopes to reopen the group home later this year. She told state licensing in a June 8 email that she planned to begin accepting clients again on Aug. 15. That did not happen.

She admits to being weary.

“I’m tired,” she said. “It is difficult to love someone that does not love themself. It is difficult to maintain a healthy staff for our kids. It is difficult to constantly fundraise to meet the needs of these girls.

“And, it’s difficult to keep up with the state’s ever-changing regulations.”

One of her appeals has been denied, according to the state. The rest are pending.

Jenny Williamson talks about her plans to expand Courage House in a 2015 interview with The Sacramento Bee

Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom

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