What began this spring as a third-party audit undertaken by the city has escalated into a series of shocking and disturbing allegations and counter-allegations involving the St. Thomas Early Learning Centre – which operates childcare facilities in four different locations – and its former executive director Patricia Riddell-Laemers.
The allegations include a claim by Riddell-Laemers she was sexually assaulted by a member of the St. Thomas Police Service who was on the centre’s board of directors.
As background, City Scope was contacted in March by a former staffer at an Early Learning Centre in St. Thomas with information on the departure of Riddell-Laemers, the disbursement of top-up pay ear-marked for staff and allegations some individuals may have been wrongfully dismissed.
A call to Elizabeth Sebestyen, director at the St. Thomas-Elgin Social Services Department, confirmed they had initiated a third-party audit into the allocation of wage enhancement payments to childcare operators under their jurisdiction.
The wage enhancement – amounting to about two dollars per hour – is a method of equalizing the wages paid to staff at school-based centres and what the private centres pay. The money flows from the province to Ontario Works and then to the childcare operators.
In June, we contacted Irma Pedersen, supervisor of children’s services at the St. Thomas-Elgin Social Services Department, who confirmed the audit had been completed and wage enhancement cheques were being issued.
Pedersen added the St. Thomas Early Learning Centre is “working diligently to make sure all of the regulations around the wage enhancement grant are applied and adhered to.”
Rebecca Kapogiannis, chairperson of the board of directors at the St. Thomas Early Learning Centre, would not comment on the third-party audit and likewise declined comment on the departure of Riddell-Laemers.
Since that time, we have been in communication with Riddell-Laemers and her legal counsel who advise they are undertaking legal action against the centre, based on a number of allegations, none of which have been proven in court.
Riddell-Laemers was employed at the centre for more than 26 years and she held the position of executive director since 2003.
Her employment was terminated in February of this year with an internal investigation undertaken to determine whether the termination was with or without cause.
In April, she was informed the termination was with cause.
The allegations against her included failure to obtain proper approvals from the Ministry of Education prior to demolishing a wall in one of the facilities; improperly disbursed wage enhancement funds; use of centre credit cards for personal expenses; harassment and bullying of staff; and intimate interactions in the office which were overheard by staff.
Riddell-Laemers denies the allegations on which her dismissal for cause was based.
She states, “she acted prudently in her capacity as executive director and under the instruction and oversight of the board of directors.”
Riddell-Laemers adds it was the centre’s practice to “allow both professional expenses and personal charges to be made on the company credit card. The personal charges would then be paid back by the employee.”
This was a practice that existed before she became executive director.
The centre cites an example of the above in which she submitted a claim for “meals and 14 shots of vodka for two people at lunch.”
With regard to harassment and bullying, Riddell-Laemers states that “she did, on occasion raise her voice and also reprimanded employees in regard to performance issues when it was warranted.”
She denies she ever abused her position in order to harass or bully personnel.
As to the allegation of sexual impropriety in her office, she denies the incident ever occurred, adding the allegation “is contrary to how the board of directors has acted when she reported that two other staff members were caught having sexual intercourse in the staff room during work hours.”
Riddell-Laemers goes on to advise, “These two individuals were simply told to take their relations off the property and they continued to be employed by STELC without being reprimanded or dismissed for cause.”
Perhaps the most disturbing allegation is that of sexual assault and harassment perpetrated against her which she took to the board of directors.
Riddell-Laemers recounts the incident which followed a board of directors meeting where alcohol was consumed and which continued at a downtown St. Thomas restaurant.
Riddell-Laemers alleges “she was sexually assaulted in the women’s restroom” by a board director who was a member of the St. Thomas Police Service.
Riddell-Laemers notes the incident was witnessed by the then board president and restaurant management eventually intervened.
She goes on to note, “These events, including the incident where the employees were caught having intercourse in the staff room, were all discussed at a board meeting in early 2017. No reprimands were given and no sanctions were enforced for the troubling conduct.”
Along with a series of financial improprieties, the St. Thomas Early Learning Centre alleges employees approached the board in February of this year with complaints about Riddell-Laemers’ conduct.
These include “describing her sex life in detail; having intercourse in her office where staff could hear her; sharing a video of a man masturbating; and sharing photographs of men’s genitals on her telephone.”
As to the allegation of sexual assault, the centre stresses the board had no reason to believe Riddell-Laemers “felt harassed or that any steps were required to respond to the situation.”
The centre understands the police constable in question “will adamantly and unequivocally deny that any sexual assault or sexual harassment took place.”
St. Thomas Police Chief Chris Herridge indicated he contacted the Special Investigations Unit – the province’s police watchdog – regarding the allegation, however the SIU did not invoke its mandate.
Herridge communicated the following in an email to City Scope.
“I then asked Chatham-Kent to conduct an investigation. At this time, they do not feel there will be criminal charges but they will be running their investigation by a Crown Attorney for review, which we prefer. After that, we will review if misconduct has occurred.
“We are doing our due diligence to ensure transparency and accountability.”
Again, it must be stressed, none of the allegations have been proven in court.
It is also worth noting the St. Thomas Early Learning Centre is a not-for-profit corporation that provides “childcare programs in four locations, plus homecare for children in some situations.”
ONE SCHOOL FOR RENT, IDEAL LOCATION
With the departure of the STEAM Centre from Wellington Public School, what becomes of the facility that is not generating a penny of revenue for its owner, the City of St. Thomas?
We talked with city manager Wendell Graves this week, who advised a report will be coming to council next month on options for the facility which, several years ago, was the St. Thomas campus of Algoma University.
The former Thames Valley District School Board facility was purchased by the city in 2011 to provide parking spaces for the new consolidated courthouse.
“We are considering whether we might have some internal need for some of the space there in September,” advised Graves.
“We haven’t quite got it locked down yet whether we need to use the space because we’re going to be doing some renovations in one of the areas (of city hall). We hopefully will have that sorted out for the first council meeting in September.”
It would only be a short-term requirement during the renovations. Looking further down the road, Graves said the city is taking a big-picture approach to finding a tenant.
“It’s a wonderful space, so I think we will have a big lens on alternatives that may come forward. Obviously, what will be important to us is that it fits the building and it fits the neighbourhood and fits the zoning.
“And the longer the term, the better.”
The designated heritage building officially opened as a school on Jan. 27, 1899.
LET’S TALK ABOUT DIVERSITY AND IMMIGRATION
A vital component to ensuring growth in rural areas like St. Thomas and Elgin is the ability to attract newcomers and immigrants to the region.
That will be the focus of A Community Conversation, a public forum to be held Sept. 13 at the CASO station where a trio of guest speakers will delve into topics related to diversity and immigration.
Tom Sproat, project facilitator with the St. Thomas Elgin Local Immigration Partnership (STELIP), says the forum is open to all members of the public.
“The intention of the event overall is to attempt to address questions raised by the public based on individuals receive their information from a variety of sources,” explained Sproat.
“And we’re hoping to offer an opportunity to hear speakers on topics they are well versed in. When the speakers are finished there will be a question-and-answer session with the panel.”
Sproat continues, “In our work, every once in a while we get enquiries from the public which aren’t the most favourable questions about immigrants. The incident in the Elgin Mall parking lot is an example.”
Sproat is referring to the unprovoked attack in December of last year by a bat-wielding Toronto man against a Columbian family that left the father recovering from a cracked rib and bruising.
“Areas like St. Thomas and Elgin – and many other rural areas across Canada – aim to entice newcomers to move from a big city to these more rural locations to bring their skills and their young families,” Sproat points out.
“It’s a part of maintaining and sustaining the growth of these locations.”
The panel includes Imam Abd Alfatah Twakkal, who was born and raised in Calgary. He has a BA in Religious Studies, a BSc in Zoology, and a Master’s degree in Islamic Studies. He came to London with his family in October of 2013 and is the Imam of the London Muslim Mosque. He will be speaking about the religion of Islam and what it means to be a Muslim today.
Victoria Esses is professor of Psychology and Director of the Centre for Research on Migration and Ethnic Relations at Western University. She is co-chair and principal investigator of the Pathways to Prosperity Partnership. She will be presenting on the role of the media in the public’s perception of immigration and immigrants.
Corinne Walsh serves as adjunct faculty with King’s University College and Continuing Studies at Western University. She is the co-founder of Platinum Leadership, a London-based company that focuses on corporate change and the development of leadership skills and a positive workplace culture. She founded Platinum Leadership in 2007 along with her husband Andrew. Corrine will be speaking on the regional economic impact of immigrants, and the demand for their skills and experiences in the labour market.
A Community Conversation will run from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and there is no charge to attend.
THE READERS WRITE
Allan Mills describes the St. Thomas Energy/Ascent Group Inc. history over the past several years as “fiscal folly.”
He writes, “The ultimate failure of this company can be laid directly at the feet of the mayor and councillors who served on the board. The puffery of the city manager’s summary is laughable at best.
“This is exactly what one gets when the executive management side of a business is left to slick-talking bureaucrats and inexperienced non-business minded politicians. Neither group cares about fiscal or fiduciary trust, rather they rejoice in the orgy of spending other people’s money.
“The citizens of the city deserve better and should turf the people involved to the curb come this election.
“Good luck in your endeavour to explore deeper into this fiscal folly, which is just another in the litany of the life of St. Thomas.”
Questions and comments may be emailed to: City Scope
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