Healing Trauma at Hanna

Boys Center addresses on-site abuse while healing the kids it serves.

Story Mary Cardaras
Photos David Bolling

Brian Farragher is in the business of healing broken spirits. But lately, his own spirit has taken a bit of a beating.

Farragher is CEO of the Hanna Boys Center, nestled in 170 bucolic acres on Arnold Drive outside Sonoma, a fabled residential institution with the mantra and motto of “turning hurt into hope.”

Hanna is home to some 90 adolescent, at-risk youth, each of whom is recipient of the center’s stated belief that everyone, regardless of what may have happened to them in childhood, “deserves the opportunity to lead a happy, productive and fulfilled life.” Many of those boys have experienced the full spectrum of childhood trauma, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

And unless you don’t follow local news, you know that therein lies a particularly painful irony.

Because it has been on Brian Farragher’s watch that the problem of sexual abuse at Hanna itself has come to light, even though it originated before he was hired. But while the shadow cast by the abuse allegations has covered the entire institution, many could argue that Brian Farragher is the perfect person to lead Hanna out of this darkness, a darkness that Farragher readily admits is now a regrettable part of its history. Instead of hiding from the allegations, or refusing to discuss them in public, Farragher has chosen to meet them head on, which has been no small challenge.

Hanna’s problem, while it may pale in comparison to the abuses revealed in the Catholic Church, the entertainment industry, athletics, government, corporate America, the U.S. Olympic Committee and school campuses across the country, nevertheless is painfully close to home.

The clouds actually began gathering for Hanna before Farragher became its new director in 2014. Farragher replaced the Rev. John Crews, after the beloved priest resigned in 2013 following an accusation of “sexual misconduct” from 40 years earlier, that was reported second-hand and without corroborating evidence, only after the alleged victim had died. Given that the Santa Rosa diocese had been rocked by sex abuse scandals and multimillion-dollar settlements for years—the most recent one in 2014 when a teen victim was paid $3.5 million—Crews’ decision not to contest the postmortem charge against him was viewed as an expression of concern for the welfare of Hanna and the Church. Instead, he left Hanna graciously and quietly. Not long after, Hanna was rocked to its core with contemporary revelations of sexual misconduct on at least two fronts.

Enter Brian Farragher, whose discovery of Hanna Boys Center can be viewed as serendipitous for both parties. He was celebrating his wedding anniversary, sipping wine on the picture-perfect grounds of the St. Francis Winery on Highway 12, when he commented to his wife that Sonoma Valley was beautiful and that he “could get used to living here.” After another visit to the area, he passed by Hanna and grew curious about what it was and what it did. Around the same time, he had left his position at the Andrus Children’s Center in New York and was in the market for another job when he heard that the there was a void in leadership at Hanna. He applied and the rest, as they say, is history.

The 59-year-old Farragher is from the small seaside town of Rockaway Beach, in Queens, New York, with a thick accent to prove it. He looks like a stocky, bald, Mr. Clean, albeit articulate, erudite, serious but quick to smile. The Irish Catholic former altar boy and his two siblings were raised by their mother. Farragher never knew his father, who was killed in a car accident when he was just 6 months old.

“My mom was a widow at 25 years old, and she had three little kids to take care of. We were not well off. We struggled. We didn’t have new clothes. We had hand-me-downs, but we had what we needed,” Farragher says. “She was tough. She had to be, but I knew my mom would have walked through fire for me.” Discipline also needs love, Farragher believes, and children need relationships with caring adults. “Discipline without love is abuse,” he asserts.

His experience growing up would inform and focus Farragher’s core beliefs, shaping his future work, maybe even leading to his role at Hanna. He was a graduate of the Jesuit Le Moyne College in Syracuse, earned an MBA at Iona College and a master’s of social work from Fordham University. Over time, he came to understand and appreciate the effects of trauma on the mind and on the soul, as he briefly considered the priesthood, in his work as a counselor, and in his clinical career.

But it wasn’t until he took a position at Andrus in Yonkers, a New York treatment facility that, according to its website, “nurtures the social and emotional well-being of children,” that he realized, “This is it,” this is the kind of work he would do. So, for three decades, that is exactly what he has done—devoted his life to the well-being and healthy growth of children, most recently at Hanna.

Farragher is also a nationally known expert and sought-after speaker and facilitator in the realm of childhood trauma, which has influenced his work at Hanna and has shifted the premise of how to approach troubled young boys. For Farragher, the question put to emotionally injured and damaged children—kids who have suffered and exhibit behavior problems, who are isolated, lost, trapped inside themselves—should no longer be “What’s wrong with you?” but “What happened to you?”

That simple, but resonating question is a game changer. “If you change the script, things could end differently,” he says, reflecting his commitment to a therapeutic model based on the study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), now in increasingly widespread application around Sonoma County and at Hanna.

This strategy also considers the concept of toxic stress, which Farragher claims, “is the lens through which we should look at mental health.” Toxic stress, he says, can affect “brain architecture and brain chemistry” and can manifest after abuse or traumatic experiences. It is a key consideration in the treatment and healing of young people, like the ones who live at Hanna Boys Center.      

Farragher remembers the day he found out about the abuse at Hanna “like it was yesterday.” It was a Saturday, in June of 2017, when Sonoma’s Police Chief Bret Sackett called Farragher at home about 39-year-old Kevin Thorpe, a Rohnert Park resident who had been employed at Hanna for 14 years. Thorpe had been hired as a youth counselor, became licensed as a counselor and caseworker, and was ultimately promoted to clinical director, a position making him responsible for supervising staff counselors and interns and overseeing treatment plans for residential students. He was arrested at home on multiple charges of sexual abuse.

A complaint from the Community Care Licensing Division of the California Department of Social Services, which threatens to revoke Hanna’s license to operate, charges that the center “failed to protect the personal rights of clients in care and failed to provide adequate care and supervision.” It also details the alleged molestation of seven children “over the course of 10 or more years while the victims were minors” and living at Hanna. The alleged abuse included “oral copulation, masturbation and viewing pornography,” which happened on the property and off, during outings “permitted” by Hanna.

The same complaint outlines a second incident in which a 22-year-old staff member, Angelica Malinsky, was accused of “inappropriate contact” with a 17-year-old boy. According to news reports, she allegedly had sex with the youth “at least three times” in two months on the Hanna grounds, and was subsequently charged by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office with a misdemeanor offense of engaging in an unlawful sex act. She was summarily fired, and a subsequent civil suit was filed last September alleging that the center did not respond to concerns about the care and safety of the children there. An attorney for the alleged juvenile victim sought damages for negligence in hiring, training, retention and supervision of employees, infliction of emotional distress, intentional and negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract.

Meanwhile, the center’s previous clinical director, Dr. Timothy Norman, filed a $2.7 million whistle-blower lawsuit against Hanna, alleging that the center fired him after he lodged complaints about bullying incidents at the center that were allegedly ignored by staff.

While Thorpe remains in jail, with bail set at $1.8 million, the investigation into the alleged abuse is ongoing and being handled by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault/Child Abuse Investigations Unit, in Santa Rosa. Unit leader Sgt. Dave Berges, says the investigation officially began on June 1, 2017, when a then-23-year-old accuser came forward. He says he can’t speculate when it will end. “The investigation can go on indefinitely and can lead to other areas,” Berges says. “One victim might lead us to another one. There could be other victims.”

Sonoma Police Chief Sackett, who has attended numerous events on the Hanna campus and understands the important role the center plays in the Valley community, acknowledges, “Throughout its long history, I’ve been told that Hanna has been a good community partner, so its closure would certainly have an impact.” That said, he adds, “I firmly believe these are serious allegations that need to be investigated and must be addressed by Hanna with both accountability and transparency. I believe that Mr. Farragher understands that the safety of the youth is paramount.”

By all accounts, Farragher does understand. One of the first steps taken in response to the crisis was the hiring of a Dallas, Texas, firm called Presidium Management that contracted to help Hanna evaluate risk management and assess policies and procedures. Things are already different.

Explaining the changes in policies and practices since the abuse scandal broke, Farragher starts by pointing to a mirror affixed to a wall near the ceiling of his office. It is similar to the ones that enable you to see on the other side of a blind driveway. It wasn’t there before.

“There was always a window in my door,” Farragher points, but the mirror is a new reality. People can now see what is going on in his office. No one can hide. But that’s just a small example of change.

To protect Hanna’s children and teens, the transportation policy has been revised, and now every vehicle can be tracked with a GPS. Background checks have been beefed up and so have interviewing protocols. “We want to know why they want a job at Hanna. We want to know what they value. Overall, there are new hoops to jump through,” Farragher explains. That includes “the retraining of staff and young people on identifying the warning signs of sexual abuse and re-organizing our staff structure to improve resident-staff ratios.”

Farragher says he is “confident” Hanna will remain open because, he contends, the alleged abuses are not institutional problems, they were not systemic. “Look, a bad thing happened here,” he says. “It feels terrible. It’s shameful. It’s sad. And it was disclosed on my watch. But we need to talk about it. Like mold, it only grows in the dark.” He admits the organization suffered a “terrible trauma,” and that only through transparency and working through it can Hanna be a better organization for it.

According to Hanna board chairman Tullus Miller, who has served since July 1, 2017, Farragher has been a huge asset as the organization has navigated these difficult waters. “He is a great communicator and, in fact, has over-communicated during this time, which is a good thing,” Miller says. The board gets updates directly from Farragher, directly from other senior staff and directly from counsel, without filters. “That is a tribute to Brian,” says Miller. “In all of this, the board has been fully engaged and has approached the challenges as realists.”

Every decision the organization makes, says Tullus, is focused on one question: What is in the best interest of the boys who call Hanna home?  

Tullus says he believes Farragher has “held up pretty well,” in a very stressful situation and adds, “He is resilient and energized to lead the organization forward in the 21th century.”

Hanna’s annual fundraising gala, “Evening with the All-Stars,” is scheduled for April 21, and that event could be a bellwether in terms of how donors regard the organization in light of the past year. “I guess, so far we’re down a little this year in terms of donations,” says Miller, “but the gala usually gives a good net return.” Last year, Hanna raised about a quarter of a million dollars at the event. Farragher adds, “It’s difficult to tell if these (abuse) events have had an impact. The (October) wildfires have been a significant variable for everyone. We believe our mission is no less important, and we believe our donors share that belief as well.”

According to Farragher, the center’s endowment is around $140 million. While that’s a sizable pot of money, he points out that operating a residential treatment facility is costly, and more than $11 million a year is allocated for the care and education of the boys, while more than $1 million goes to pay for administration and support staff. A hefty 55 percent of the center’s operating budget comes directly from the endowment.

Today Hanna has around 90 boys, approximately 42 percent of whom come from Sonoma County while 9 percent come from Alameda County, 9 percent from Contra Costa County and the rest from places all over California and as far away as Los Angeles. Some even come from out of state. The racial and ethnic diversity of the center is also notable. Hispanic/Latino and white residents are evenly divided at 38 percent each. Twelve percent are African-American, 7 percent are recorded as “mixed,” and 5 percent are Pacific Islanders.

The admission policy is unique. The center takes no public money, and no money from the Catholic Church, with which it is loosely associated. Residents are not referred. Every potential resident applies on his own volition and writes a letter about why he wants to come. “Our mission is to help motivated youth,” Farragher asserts. “Trusting in adults again is a process.”

Hanna has come a long way from its humble beginnings in a Menlo Park cottage, miles from the bucolic Sonoma Valley. It was established here in 1949, and today the lush, green, wooded property includes a school administration building, a chapel, athletic fields, swimming pool, seven residence cottages, two group homes for the older boys, a dining hall, auditorium and industrial kitchen, wood shop and garden. It seems the perfect place for reflection, healing and growth.

“Great things are happening here,” says Farragher, who has expansive plans for the future, including an alternative school he would like to create that nonresidential students would be able attend. Meanwhile, several partnerships and collaborations are forming all over town with Hanna. A culinary program is in the works, and Farragher wants to attract more people and more organizations to use the facility, saying, “We are a great resource for the community.”

His optimism, however, is not meant to distract from the problems at hand. Those have to be dealt with soberly, and because of the trauma the center itself has experienced, it, too, has been forced to change its own script. For Hanna, the question also has got to be “What happened to us?” not “What’s wrong with us?”  

Brian Farragher is smack in the middle of that question, and it hasn’t been an easy place to be. The year has been a difficult one, maybe even the most professionally difficult of his life. There have been persistent rumors that he is looking for other work. He’s not.

“Look,” he says, with straightforward candor, “I’d be lying to you if I said there weren’t moments last year when I wanted out. I can’t say I have not thought about it, but I am not going to run from this. And to tell you the truth, the longer I am here, the more I believe this is my mission. I am supposed to be here.”

One Comment

  1. I really feel for the many folks at Hanna doing great work. I’ve worked with youth for years, and recently asked myself and colleagues – would we know if one of our staff was a pedophile? Are we questioning enough? It’s hard because you assume, for the most part, people are in the field for the right reasons. There is a camaraderie that develops – all in, help at all costs, etc. But obviously we need to be much more discerning, and shift all policies to total transparency. I’m so sorry for the boys that were hurt – again – and for the folks who really do this work out of love and a commitment to the youth. We can’t lose sight of that.

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