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Official’s Child Abuse History Rocks Spokane Welfare Office

Sun., Aug. 17, 1997

Spokane social workers have threatened to go all the way to the governor’s office with what they call the worst-kept secret in the local welfare office: One of their bosses is a convicted child abuser.

John Hentze was charged with molesting a 12-year-old girl inside his home in early 1993 and later convicted of a lesser assault charge.

The conviction didn’t disqualify him from a reassignment last April to be the area’s chief liaison with day-care providers concerned about welfare reform.

Department of Social and Health Services employees and union officials, outraged over Hentze’s new post, have renewed their demand that he be ousted or demoted.

“How appropriate is it to have as a DSHS administrator a man who has been convicted of a sexually related crime against a child?” employees asked in a letter sent to the head of the department last October.

Hentze has repeatedly denied molesting the girl. At his sentencing, he entered an Alford plea, refusing to admit guilt but acknowledging prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him at trial.

In an interview Friday, Hentze said he entered the plea to protect the girl, a relative, from the pain of testifying.

“I’ve gone through hell for … years,” Hentze said. “This is something I didn’t do. I understand the concerns, I really do, but you know, it goes on and on and on. It’s on my mind every day.”

Despite the lingering controversy, the 50-year-old Hentze has prospered within the agency since his conviction. Before entering the Alford plea, he was promoted to head a 70-employee office in east Spokane, and he remains a top administrator, paid $58,870 a year.

His current job, as a special assistant reporting only to regional administrator Bernard Nelson, was created when social workers objected to having him as a boss.

The union’s protest has spurred an internal investigation, launched last month into the handling of Hentze and another top local supervisor accused of sexually harassing female workers.

In the wake of the charges, a supervisor was transferred out of the east Spokane welfare office.

Two other administrators in that office have been the subject of sexual harassment complaints in the last four years, according to union officials.

Hentze said he’s wary every time he is in the same room with children, fearful that his words or actions could be misconstrued. His desk job, he said, keeps him far from kids.

But news of Hentze’s conviction shocked Spokane County child-care providers, who regularly consult with him about new welfare rules and reimbursement rates.

Hentze’s criminal record prevents him from stepping foot inside a child-care facility, said Tim Nelson, Spokane director of the state child-care policy office. He’d also be banned from volunteering in a school.

Although Hentze’s administrative responsibilities keep him at arm’s length from children, child-care providers say his record raises fears.

“I believe anyone in the child-care industry needs to be held to the same standard - that it’s inappropriate for someone who wouldn’t be legally allowed in a child-care facility to be helping make child-care policy,” said Shannon Selland, who owns a North Side day care and serves as public policy chair of the Eastern Washington Family Child Care Association.

Kathy Thamm, program director for Family Care Resources, a child-care referral agency, agreed. “The contact (with DSHS) needs to be squeaky-clean,” she said.

Selland and Thamm said they received information about Hentze’s criminal record from a reporter.

Hentze didn’t mention his conviction to supervisors until last fall, after union officials told Bernard Nelson about the 3-year-old offense.

After an investigation, Hentze received a letter of reprimand for not reporting the crime, but he saw no cut in pay or significant change in responsibilities.

Nelson, who praises Hentze’s administrative skills, promoted him in October 1993, when the felony child molestation charge was still pending, to run the east Spokane office.

“I’d like in my own mind to believe he is innocent,” Nelson said last week. “What do you do, hang a guy the rest of his life?”

Nelson admits, however, that he may have erred by assigning Hentze to work with child-care providers because of the “public perception.”

“You may be seeing a change there,” he said.

Nelson’s boss in Olympia, Jerry Friedman, said the state followed its rules in dealing with Hentze.

“We have to do the right thing by all parties,” said Friedman, the agency’s assistant secretary. “That includes Mr. Hentze’s rights.”

The child-abuse charge was first leveled by Hentze’s ex-wife, Marilyn, during a bitter divorce that ended their 18-year marriage. She filed on Sept. 28, 1992, citing irreconcilable differences.

According to court documents filed during the divorce, she became concerned when the girl made excuses to avoid weekend visits with Hentze. Marilyn Hentze alerted the girl’s counselor at South Pines Elementary School.

After interviewing her, the counselor, Kitty Brudos, called Child Protective Services.

The girl told police that Hentze rubbed her breasts on several occasions. His ex-wife said he once fondled the girl in front of her.

During a weekend visit, while lounging on a couch and watching the 1992 Apple Cup football game, Hentze became aroused and rubbed against the girl, she told police. She tried to flee, but Hentze held her down, according to court documents.

“I wanted to leave but I was frozen,” the girl told Theresa Summerour, the guardian ad litem assigned to the case.

Brudos and Summerour said the girl did not show signs of being coached and did not appear to be lying. But Hentze suggests in court documents that his ex-wife manipulated the girl into raising false allegations.

An April 1993, examination by Spokane psychologist Paul Wert concluded that Hentze “does not present as an individual who is predisposed to explicit incidents of child sexual abuse.”

However, he was ordered by the judge at sentencing to avoid contact with the girl. He has not seen her since the conviction, at her request.

Hentze’s ex-wife said she can’t believe her former husband is the agency’s child-care liaison while the girl he assaulted is still struggling to recover emotionally.

“It’s a slap in the face,” she said.

At the sentencing on Sept. 21, 1993, Hentze was told by the judge to get sex offender treatment. Hentze said he did not get the treatment, on his psychologist’s advice. He was also sentenced to two years of probation and has to pay for the victim’s counseling.

It’s unclear from court records why Hentze pleaded down from felony child molestation to fourth-degree assault, a gross misdemeanor.

After the conviction, Hentze was sent to head DSHS’s east Spokane office, where he angered employees with his behavior, according to court records.

Headed to sexual harassment training, he allegedly joked with financial worker Bonnie Schulz that he was on his way to “babe training.”

“One would wonder why Mr. Hentze would be assigned as a public spokesman for DSHS considering his history and apparent lack of sensitivity, evidenced by his remarks that sex harassment training was ‘babe training,”’ said Schulz in an interview.

After learning of the conviction, Nelson moved Hentze to the regional headquarters in Spokane to be a special assistant, coordinating welfare reform efforts.

Last April, he was sent to head the central Spokane welfare office. But members of the Washington Federation of State Employees union protested and drafted a formal complaint it threatened to pass on to Gov. Gary Locke. The reassignment was cancelled.

Today, Hentze remains Nelson’s assistant, responsible for child-care matters, among other duties, including acting as a liaison between the office and the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce. He recently coordinated a project to distribute free Riverfront Park passes to poor children.

After receiving complaints about Hentze and other administrators, DSHS officials in Olympia sent a pair of personnel investigators to Spokane in late June. More than a dozen employees were interviewed.

A report is pending.

Despite the internal investigation, employees feel their concerns about Hentze have been ignored.

“Look at the facts here,” said Tom Watson, regional representative for the employees’ union. “I think they speak for themselves.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

Tags: ethics

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