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Man with history of sex crimes working at Kansas shelter for unaccompanied migrant children

"I’m not going to go searching for Jeff’s background," the shelter's lead case manager said.

Credit: The Villages Inc. Facebook page
Credit: The Villages Inc. Facebook page

A man with a history of serious sex crimes allegations is working at a shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children in Topeka, Kansas, according to public records reviewed by ThinkProgress.

Jeffrey J. Montague, 63, of Topeka, Kansas, is the human resources manager at The Villages, a nonprofit that has a $5.9 million contract with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to house unaccompanied migrant children.

But Montague has an especially checkered past. In 1989, the Boy Scouts of America banned him from participating in the organization’s activities, after allegations surfaced that he had made sexual advances on an exchange student at the high school where he worked. The school elected not to renew Montague’s contract after the incident, according to records from the Boy Scouts.

In October of 2007, Montague was charged with solicitation of sodomy in a public park in Topeka, Kansas, according to court records. He entered a diversion agreement one month later in Topeka Municipal Court.

Montague did not immediately return a request for comment.

“As is standard procedure for all of our employees, Mr. Montague has passed all background checks required by Kansas licensing regulations as well as all Federal [sic] requirements,” Sylvia Crawford, The Villages’ executive director, told ThinkProgress in an email.

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Neither the aforementioned Boy Scouts records nor the solicitation charge filed in Topeka Municipal Court appear in LexisNexis, one of the most common databases for employment background checks.

The Villages shelter has taken in 190 children from HHS since February 2017, according to local Topeka NPR affiliate KCUR. Around ten of those children were separated from their families at the Southwest border, KCUR reported.

Crawford declined to comment on how much contact Montague has with children in his current role. But two former employees told ThinkProgress that Montague is in regular contact with the shelter’s youth.

“The kids literally have to walk past his office to get to the counselors,” Myra Gillum, a former case manager at the shelter, said. “He has direct contact with them all the time.”

The allegations against Montague first came to light in 2014, after Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis hired him to appear in a televised campaign ad. At the time, Montague was an amateur stage actor, who appeared in the Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy’s 2014 production of “Mary Poppins.” After a public outcry was raised by the Kansas Republican Party, Davis’ campaign pulled the ad and apologized “to Kansans for [the] mistake.”

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Alarmed by the 2014 news report, Gillum sent an email to the Department Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies on Aug. 16, 2017, to let them know about his troubling past.

“I have recently discovered that the only HR employee at The Villages, has previously been involved in allegations of sexual advances toward a foreign exchange student when he worked at Seaman High School in Topeka, KS,” Gillum wrote in the email, which she shared with ThinkProgress. “He was terminated from the school district for the allegations and settled the matter out of court. He has also been previously arrested for solicitation of sodomy at Gage Park (located in Topeka, KS)”

Gillum and another former employee also also voiced their concerns to Crawford and other The Villages administrators. Gillum says administrators told them not to worry because Montague had passed a background check and does not work directly with the children.

“I don’t buy that defense at all,” Gillum told ThinkProgress.

Another former Villages employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, said his superiors began to treat him differently as soon as he brought up Montague’s past.

In a taped phone call provided to ThinkProgress, the second former staffer pressed lead case manager Judette Padilla on whether she knew that Montague’s 2007 case was settled out of court and therefore wouldn’t appear on a background check.

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“I’m not going to go searching for Jeff’s background,” Padilla said. “And I understand that you have access, I mean, that you have. And so that’s fine. But then that, it is a moral dilemma for you versus me, because I don’t — I am not concerned, because I know he passed all the background checks he needed to pass to work with kids.”

“If your children were 14, would you leave them with him? Because I wouldn’t,” the former employee asked on the recording.

“Well, yes I would, because I know Jeff,” Padilla answered after some hesitation. “So, I mean, in that aspect of it, I’ve known his family and him for thirty-plus years.”

When Padilla was reached for comment, the executive director responded on Padilla’s behalf saying she has instructed her employees not to speak with the media because they have no further comment.

Both former employees who spoke with ThinkProgress described a culture of loyalty at The Villages that is designed to protect those at the top.

Democratic lawmakers in Kansas have called for more transparency from The Villages in recent weeks. Kansas State Rep. John Alcala (D) of Topeka said in a press conference last month that the state has a role to play whether or not the children at The Villages are in federal custody.

“Who gives a shit what the state’s authority is?” Alcala said. “Are those kids being cared for, and how’s the money being spent?”

An inspection of The Villages by the Kansas Department of Children and Families last month found that “the children seem to be adjusting well, and are having their needs met.”

Alcala also attempted to tour the facility last month but was told that he had to give two-weeks notice. He filled out a formal request to visit The Villages, along with other state representatives, in early July.