Probation officers describe 'toxic' workplace in Columbia County
The director of Columbia County's parole and probation department retired this summer, but not before at least half a dozen employees left the department because of what they described as bullying and harassment from her.
Complaints against Janet Evans during her six years at the helm of the Columbia County Community Justice Department prompted four investigations into her leadership, including a 2018 probe that concluded she showed "a lack of respect of professional courtesy towards others" and contributed to a dysfunctional work environment.
Former and current employees described a lack of training that led to dangerous situations both for parole and probation officers and the offenders they served, in a system meant to help those who have committed crimes change their behaviors and get back on their feet.
Former parole and probation officers said that employees who got on Evans' bad side could expect to find themselves ostracized from coworkers, mocked, and held to standards not applied to those in Evans' corner.
"I have never dealt with anyone so unprofessional or mean-spirited in my career. Ultimately, I chose to do what was right for my health and well-being, and left an agency that I cared about," Trinity Monahan, a former Columbia County parole and probation officer, wrote in a 2017 letter to a coworker obtained by the Spotlight.
Monahan, who also serves on the St. Helens School Board, now works as a parole and probation officer in Multnomah County.
Evans joined the county in 2014, coming from a career working with juvenile offenders. In Columbia County, Evans oversaw the monitoring of both youth and adults. She is not a certified parole and probation officer, but she does hold certifications for juveniles, according to the county's HR department.
Evans declined multiple requests for an interview.
A culture of isolation
"She's a hilarious woman, (but) the things that came out of her mouth would shock a sailor," Kris Ettner said of Evans. "It seemed like if you participated, you were accepted. If you did not participate in that behavior, you would be ostracized. I saw that clearly with Patsey (Sadler) and Trin Monahan."
Ettner, who was terminated in 2017 while still in her probationary period of employment, said she initially participated in some of the teasing that Evans encouraged.
"It got to the point where it was just ridiculous, mean and bullying. And that's when I stopped, and I became the person that was ostracized, like Trin had been and Patsey had been," Ettner said.
Sadler, who retired in 2019, was a frequent target of abuse, she and Monahan both reported in documents obtained by the Spotlight.
Sadler lodged a complaint in 2015, reporting that she felt Evans was singling her out and demeaning her. At one point, she said, Evans accused her of being "deceptive," and records show Evans repeatedly ordered multiple investigations into Sadler's performance starting that year.
Sadler is African American. Evans, like the majority of the department's employees, is white.
In one case, Sadler was supervising a client who, due to a physical disability, regularly slurred her speech and appeared intoxicated. Evans claimed that Sadler should have ordered a drug test, though the client had completed treatment and only had a month left under supervision.
Those standards weren't ones other employees were held to, her colleague Monahan wrote.
Ettner said she was explicitly told not to train with or take advice from Monahan or Sadler.
"I learned the most from them and Nicole (Read)," Ettner said. "I had no experience and I needed to get my training from someone, and Justin (Hecht) wasn't doing it."
Read, a parole and probation officer who left the department in 2019, declined to speak with the Spotlight for this story. Justin Hecht, the current adult division supervisor, declined to comment.
Crossing a line
Monahan's letter laid out a timeline recounting two years working under Evans.
In May 2015, Monahan sent an email to Evans expressing concern about his working relationship with her. But instead of taking steps to improve that relationship, Monahan alleged, Evans grew more hostile toward both him and Sadler.
In his 2017 letter, written about a year after he left the county's employment, Monahan described the work environment as "hostile" and "toxic." He said sexual remarks and comments about employees' bodies "were not only frequent, but encouraged by management."
Sadler said Evans never made any remarks about Sadler's race, but she nonetheless felt Evans was racially discriminating against her because she didn't treat other employees the same way.
But the county sided with Evans.
In a June 2015 letter to Sadler, the county's human resources director Jean Ripa wrote that the county's investigator "reported that rather than harassment, it appears that your complaints against Ms. Evans result from your dislike of Ms. Evans' management style."
Sadler declined to comment for this story. Monahan also declined to speak on the record, but he said the incidents and relationships described in the letter and investigations were "an accurate representation of my experience."
In one of the county's investigations into Evans, investigator Craig Stoelk wrote that multiple employees confirmed that Evans would call select employees into her office for social visits and to show them videos of pus being squeezed from pimples or abscesses — even likening the pus to a particular employee who had gotten on Evans' bad side — and videos of people vomiting while on amusement park rides.
Hecht, who continues to work for the county as adult division supervisor, told Stoelk that he and Evans used similar shock-value videos in new-hire interviews to see if a potential new department member would fit in with the group. Hecht "stated that to some extent, little is asked of an applicant that really even relates to work-related qualifications and more emphasis is placed in how well that person will fit in to Ms. Evans' new social order," Stoelk wrote.
Hecht declined to speak with the Spotlight for this story.
Rocking the boat
Thomas Blum, who spent 10 years supervising the community service work crew, said his first impression of Evans was positive.
It wasn't until Evans joined the county that an investigation was launched into the department's office manager, who was eventually sentenced to prison for embezzling more than $650,000 in county funds during her nearly 30-year employment.
But Blum's opinion of Evans quickly soured. Not long after Evans joined the county, Blum told her he wanted to apply to become a probation officer. He said Evans told him that he shouldn't bother, because he was too old to make the career shift and she had other plans for him.
Yet when Blum gave his two weeks' notice, he said, Evans didn't even acknowledge his departure.
Ettner, the rookie parole and probation officer, had a rougher ride still.
Ettner worked for the parole and probation department for just over a year before Evans fired her. She had previously spent more than 14 years as a police officer in Grants Pass and led defensive tactics trainings.
Despite Ettner's years of experience, she said, Evans refused to allow her to carry a gun. Other probation officers at the same time said that almost all officers were armed when they conducted home visits.
Ettner said she had been told she needed to complete the probation academy course, and then after that she needed to wait until she was certified as a parole and probation officer. Eventually, in late February 2017, Ettner confronted Evans and told her she felt unsafe not being able to carry a gun. That spring, she was fired.
"Up until March 2017, I received nothing but positive feedback," Ettner said. "And then I expressed my concerns regarding my personal safety and training, and bam. ... It seemed like everything I did was wrong, like a case was being built against me."
In one incident Ettner described, her client had a contagious medical issue, but she had put him into a temporary housing unit.
Ettner said Evans stood in her office doorway and loudly reprimanded her, saying that Ettner's decision put others at risk. Evans then proceeded to "berate" her client in the lobby, she added, "and let everyone know what his medical issue was."
"It was a horrible experience," Ettner said. "I was shocked."
In Ettner's termination letter, Evans wrote that Ettner lacked conflict resolution skills and demonstrated an inability to follow directions from supervisors.
The Spotlight examines how the Columbia County government responded to complaints made against Janet Evans before her retirement this year, in the second part of this two-part story.
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