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Lawsuit against Christian foster care agency in Colorado Springs can continue, judge rules

Gazette - 9/20/2022

Sep. 19—A former employee of Hope & Home, a Christian-based foster care agency in Colorado Springs, can proceed with legal claims that she was subjected to a sexually and racially hostile work environment, severe or pervasive sexual harassment, disparate treatment and disability discrimination, a federal District Court judge in Colorado has decided.

In the Aug. 29 ruling on a request from Hope & Home to dismiss ex-worker Olivia Ballage's sex and race discrimination complaints, Judge Maritza Dominguez Braswell granted one dismissal, pertaining to Ballage's assertions that she faced discriminatory retaliation under Title VII. The federal Civil Rights Act makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of "race, color, religion, sex or national origin."

The judge is allowing Ballage's remaining claims to proceed to the discovery phase, in which both sides discuss witnesses and evidence they intend to present at a trial.

Ballage is representing herself in the lawsuit, an unusual move known as "pro se," Latin for "in one's own behalf."

Ballage, who describes herself as an African American woman, filed a lawsuit against Hope & Home in May 2021, alleging Executive Director Ross Wright withheld paychecks after she returned from maternity leave but did not do so to other employees on maternity leave.

She worked at the organization from 2015 until her termination in 2019 and claims during that time Wright stared at female employees' breasts while talking to them and looked them "up and down in a sexual manner."

Ballage also asserts she was fired in July 2019 after she says she discovered Wright was "sexually pursuing another female employee ... finally pinpointing some of my uncomfortability [sic] around Ross (Wright)."

The board chair whom The Gazette contacted when the lawsuit was filed last year said that Ballage never reported such allegations while on staff.

At least eight other ex-female employees and foster parents said they reported similar experiences, including that Wright tried to pursue sexual encounters with them, to the organization's board of directors.

They called for Wright to be fired, citing an abuse of power and lack of accountability.

The Hope & Home board hired a third-party workplace investigator in September 2019 to examine the claims. An undisclosed report of the findings determined "there was no merit to their claims," the board chair told The Gazette last year.

Another board member said nothing was ever proven and that members thought highly of Wright's longtime management of the agency.

The only female board member at the time, however, resigned her position the day after members received the report on the investigation, telling The Gazette that after reading the report, she "did not feel comfortable continuing" her leadership role as a board member.

Three women affiliated with Hope & Home also filed claims of workplace discrimination in April 2020 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Denver.

The commission dismissed the claims in February 2021, stating there was no determination of a violation involving discrimination and that the agency had chosen not to investigate.

That action allowed the women to file civil lawsuits, if desired. Ballage was the only one who has pursued that route.

Foster parent Meghan Jackson, who switched her state licensure from Hope & Home to another Colorado Springs child placement agency after hearing some employees complain about Wright, was part of a group of women that presented more than 100 pages of material alleging licensing violations on the part of the organization to the Colorado Department of Human Services and the Child Protection Ombudsman of Colorado in March 2020.

"I have been shocked at how difficult this has been, given the amount of evidence we submitted," Jackson said Monday. "I'm shocked this has been such a fight for something that has affected so many people.

"There are so many barriers to getting justice for sexual harassment, and this happens much more frequently than we realize."

Wright told The Gazette in May 2021 that the accusations were untrue and that he believes they arose from what he described as extended "harassment and stalking" over his organization accepting lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual couples as foster parents.

The group of women who oppose his continued leadership of Hope & Home say Wright mischaracterized the situation, as Colorado law requires child placement agencies to accept qualifying parents regardless of sexual preference or identity.

Hope & Home recruits, trains, certifies and supports foster families in Colorado Springs, Denver, the San Luis Valley and the Western Slope and is one of the largest agencies in the state.

Ballage is seeking pre- and post-judgment costs, along with an unspecified amount of "damages, interest, punitive damages, lost pay, benefits and front pay, compensatory damages and costs," according to the lawsuit.


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