NEWTON — Women who spent vulnerable teen years in the Kansas foster care system can’t forget how Youthville shattered their adolescence.
Three women shared detailed memories of being physically restrained, drugged and locked in small cinder block rooms, and how one of them was groomed by a staff member 29 years older than her for sexual gratification.
The abuse took place from 2007-2010, before the Newton institution transformed under new ownership, but the experiences exacerbated underlying trauma that still affects their lives.
An investigation by The Topeka Capital-Journal found evidence through interviews, police reports, medical and disciplinary records, affidavits, depositions and court filings to support allegations that Doug Prochazka, a Youthville employee, had sexual relations with a girl he supervised before she turned 18. Crystal, who asked not to be identified by her real name, settled a previously undisclosed lawsuit with EmberHope in 2015.
Crystal moved in with Prochazka when she left Youthville, and she alleged in the lawsuit that he forced her through physical violence into prostitution and pornography. He fathered a child with her and, because he never faced criminal charges, shares custody.
"When I express anger as an older adult now," Crystal said, "he's like, 'You know what? You made decisions. You wanted to be with me. Don't act like you're innocent and everything.' And I'm like, 'But you had this power of authority over me.' "
Newton police and the county attorney believed Prochazka had taken advantage of Crystal, and that he may have produced child pornography involving other victims, but he denied any wrongdoing and they lacked evidence to prosecute.
Crystal, Jess Huber and Natalie Zarate describe a culture without accountability while they were at Youthville. Unskilled, low-wage employees flaunted their control over girls who were there to receive psychiatric attention.
Each of the women independently talked about the frequent use of "booty juice" — their term for a forced injection of anti-psychotic medication into their buttocks — and "seclusion rooms," the small unfurnished spaces where they were locked for more than a day at a time on multiple occasions.
"They literally dragged my limp body into the white room," Huber said. "They kept me in there for days alone, and in the dark for most of it. I hated that room. It was horrible. I remember thinking I was hearing things and seeing things. It literally made me go crazy."
Youthville in 2011 shut down foster care services on the 30-acre campus where the original orphanage was built in 1929 and transferred ownership to EmberHope. Campus operations now include a shelter, school, secure care facility for kids in state custody, and three cottages for foster girls.
"We are deeply saddened to hear the personal stories expressed by these individuals," said Nickaila Sandate, president and CEO of EmberHope Youthville. "No one should ever feel mistreated. As an agency, we have measures in place to ensure the safety and well-being of the children and families we serve."
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Crystal left Prochazka in 2012 when he called her at work to say he couldn’t deal with their baby boy anymore.
She could hear the child crying in the background and rushed home to find him disregarded in his playpen.
"He was just sitting there crying with all these empty beer bottles around him," she said. "That's when I just was like, I'm not going to put my son through what I went through growing up."
Crystal’s stepfather began abusing her at a young age and raped her daily from the time she was 10 to 14. The girl was placed in foster care after confiding in doctors while hospitalized for a suicide attempt. She met Prochazka during a brief stay at Youthville when she was 15, then went to live with a pastor in Osage County who raped her on the floor of a church nursery.
She went back to Youthville and, as her relationship with Prochazka escalated beyond flirting, kept a journal that her mother later shared with police.
"I was able to find a way to get that love I wanted," Crystal wrote in the journal. "There was a staff (member) there named Doug that was 44 years old. He wasn’t cute or anything, but he reminded me of my dad, and that’s all that mattered. We would do little things together when we were alone."
At the Youthville cottage where Prochazka was tasked with keeping girls in line, the two would meet outside of camera view in the laundry room. There, she said, he would give her CDs, magazines and bottles of alcohol, and she performed oral sex in return.
As a staff member, Prochazka had access to Crystal’s case file and knew she had been a victim of sexual abuse. She was heavily medicated for the trauma she suffered. Sometimes she felt special because of the attention he gave her. Other times, she struggled with their secret relationship.
"He had told me, ’After you age out, you're not going to have anywhere to go. You can come and stay with me,’ " Crystal said. "And so I felt like I kind of had to keep the secret because if not, I would basically be on the streets."
A month after she turned 18, Crystal left Youthville and went to live with Prochazka. Her mother contacted police, who investigated the unusual relationship. Crystal told them the two had engaged in sexual relations, including intercourse, for the past two years.
In an inquiry at Prochazka’s house, Newton police officer Bryan Hall asked Prochazka if he had ever used Limewire or any other file sharing application. Prochazka said he never used such a service or downloaded child pornography, but Hall noticed an icon for Limewire on Prochazka’s computer.
"Douglas stammered," the officer wrote in a report, "then told me he had used it a few times."
Crystal declined to cooperate with the investigation, and Harvey County Attorney David Yoder decided it wasn’t in the best interest of a child sex abuse victim to force her to take the stand against her will and tell the jury what happened.
Prochazka, now a 58-year-old DJ, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment for this story. He denied in a 2015 deposition having sexual relations with Crystal before she left Youthville. He said she called him out of the blue in March 2009 and asked to move in with him.
"She was anxious," Prochazka said. "She was having trouble with her mother and having these issues, and the conversation as I recall, it transpired into more of a seduction. She was very seductive and coming on to me and very persistent about it."
After Crystal moved in with Prochazka, "things went from s--- to s---," she said.
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Huber began bashing her head into a wall after several days in the seclusion room, hoping to attract the staff’s attention.
They found her head split open, bleeding, swollen and bruised.
"It did not work," she said. "They still left me there for a couple more days after realizing what I had done — said that now I had to remain there for suicide watch. But I believe it was just more twisted cruelty."
Each Youthville cottage contains two small, square rooms with cinder block walls painted white. The empty space contains no bedding or furnishings on the hard floor — just an overhead light and security camera in a high ceiling. The girls were too short to see through the window at the top of the metal doors.
Regulations that guide social services allow rare and last-resort use of physical holds, injections and isolation for children who are trying to harm themselves or others.
"You're just re-creating another trauma," said Cheryl Rathbun, chief clinical officer for Saint Francis Ministries, a foster care contractor. "These things should only be used as an emergency intervention when all other interventions have not been effective."
Today, the rooms are available to girls who want a quiet place to "refocus." They aren’t forced into the rooms, and the doors are never closed.
But the women interviewed for this story describe a ritual in which staff members routinely turned to physical force and Thorazine shots to restrain misbehaving girls.
"Six grown men staff members sat on top of me with my pants and underwear around my ankles for hours while making the other clients line up against the wall and watch and witness," Huber said. "I remember begging and crying and pleading to them to please just get off of me because I could not breathe and their weight was crushing me. I was probably around 14 or 15 at the time, 100 or so pounds."
Huber ran away from Youthville when she was 15. On the streets, she had to lie and steal to survive. She was willing to do anything to avoid going back to the "hell hole."
For Crystal, whose stepfather had locked her in the basement, being locked in a small, cold room triggered her trauma.
"The lighting really is what f---- with you," Crystal said. "It's because it's all white. There is no stimulation whatsoever. After being in one of those rooms with the door closed on quote-unquote safety protocol for two or three days, you start seeing s---."
She has nightmares about standing against the cottage wall and watching staff hold down Zarate, shoot her up and drag her to the white room. She didn’t see Zarate again for three days.
Zarate, a victim of physical abuse before entering foster care, said she acted out in anger while at Youthville. She arrived at the Newton facility shortly before she turned 12 years old and didn’t understand why she was placed on so many medications.
"There were certain things happening in that group home that were unspoken," Zarate said, "but we as youth and I believe some of the staff members knew what was going on, which is why they put all of us on birth control."
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Youthville fired Prochazka after police and Crystal’s mother made the organization aware the two had moved in together.
Internal emails and a "critical incident report" show the organization’s primary concern was the possibility of "media attention or litigation."
To make ends meet, Crystal said, Prochazka lined up men who paid to have sex with her. He made her pose for nude photos, she said, and appear as an online "cam girl." She accepted a job as an exotic dancer to pay his rent.
"I had to dance and sit there and take all these freaking nasty photos for him," Crystal said. "I could sit there and make money so that he could have money for rent, which is really just a joke now that I think about it because literally every dime I made went to him."
She said he enforced the shameful acts by beating her. He also ordered her to give him oral sex under threat of eviction, she said.
Police again investigated Prochazka after Crystal and her son showed up at a domestic violence shelter in 2012. Newton police officer Mitchell Nedrow found a large projector and tripods set up in Prochazka’s living room. On his computer, police found lots of nude photos of Crystal and other girls. Multiple photos of Crystal showed bruising up and down her legs.
"Prochazka would make her dress up like a little girl so she would appear young," Nedrow wrote in his report. "During these photo shoots, Prochazka would show her pictures of young girls and tell her to pose like they were. (Crystal) said when she did not pose properly, Prochazka would get angry or violent with her."
Crystal said she spilled her guts to detectives and was alarmed when no charges were filed.
Yoder, the county attorney, said he needed more evidence to convince a jury to convict Prochazka of sexual abuse or child pornography.
"Do I believe that he had inappropriate sexual contact with her while she was underage and while he was a worker at Youthville? Yes, I certainly do," Yoder said. "The problem is after the passage of time and intervening circumstances, that makes prosecution a whole lot more problematic."
Crystal instead in 2014 filed the civil lawsuit, where the traumatic impact of her relationship with Prochazka would be debated by EmberHope’s attorney, Scott Gunderson.
The attorney deposed Crystal and asked her to compare the sexual abuse she suffered before and after she arrived at Youthville.
"Would you agree with me that the mental anguish that you say Doug Prochazka caused you to suffer was really no different than the mental anguish that your adoptive father and (the pastor) caused you to suffer?" Gunderson asked.
She was confused by his question, which had to be repeated. As she reflected on the confrontation years later, she concluded "rape is rape."
"How the hell am I supposed to answer that?" Crystal said. "I went from one hell to another hell. I don't know how to judge which was worse. I will never forget that question. How do you decide which is worse? You can't."
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The three brick cottages where girls live at Youthville were built in the 1990s to look like nice homes.
The living quarters are split into two levels. The ground floor has a small kitchen, cafeteria-like dining table, a laundry room, lounge with a TV behind a glass case, and the two seclusion rooms. Therapy sessions are held in the basement. Girls who live here spend much of their days upstairs, confined to two-bed rooms.
Living under strict rules in a small town was unpleasant for Tanner Lindal, a Wichita native who was at Youthville in 2018.
Girls couldn’t leave their rooms in the morning until the buzz of an intercom system signaled breakfast was ready. They had to recite rules before eating: Don’t tip back in your chair. Don’t chew with your mouth full. Don’t play with your food. They weren’t allowed to talk for the first five minutes of the meal.
"It was very childish," Lindal said.
After breakfast, the girls did chores. They could watch a movie during limited free time but otherwise had to stay in their rooms. They needed supervision to take a walk. The best off-campus attraction was the library.
These days, bad behavior results in "red" status, which means you have to sit alone and fill out paperwork instead of watching the movie.
Lindal felt like she wasted a year of year life by being at Youthville. After she was discharged from the group home in December 2018, she ran away with a boy she met in the office of a child placement agency.
"I experienced things that a 16-, 17-year-old girl should not have to go through," Lindal said. "I was doing drugs. I was homeless. There was a point where I was sleeping on the streets. There were guns to my head at one point. Sleeping in dirty conditions. People holding down my arm, putting needles in my arm. Smoking meth and doing crack. And that went on for four months."
Now 18, Lindal has bonded with other foster girls who experienced trauma, including those who were at Youthville a decade earlier, and is thankful the seclusion rooms are no longer used to lock away angry children.
Sandate, the CEO of EmberHope Youthville, wasn’t aware of the abuse outlined in this story. A native of Newton, Sandate has been an administrator at Youthville since 2002 and is proud of the organization's reputation for providing exceptional care for children.
"To be given the responsibility to adequately keep them safe and cared for, make sure that their physical and health needs, their educational needs, their mental health needs are being met — it's not to be taken lightly," Sandate said. "These are obviously other people's children, and they need to be cared for. Through assessments and services we provide, we're able to help them heal, recover, identify what their needs are if they haven't been met. That's our job, and that's what we do."
Yoder, the county attorney since 2002, said Youthville has long been a beacon for sexual predators. In recent years, he has prosecuted sex traffickers who targeted the girls there. He appreciates the cooperation and openness from current leadership.
"There was a period of time, about a decade ago, roughly, where the operation really wasn't run very well," Yoder said. "They were struggling to get people in. They were hiring people maybe without proper screening. They weren't being properly supervised. I prosecuted a few different perpetrators that were working there and were preying on some of the girls."
Now, he said, "they've got their act together."
The women interviewed for this story wanted to speak out about their experiences at Youthville in part to raise awareness of persistent problems within the foster care system.
"Just because you slap some paint on a building and change the name does not make the secrets inside and behind those walls just stop or disappear," Huber said.
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Sometimes, when she thinks about her relationship with Prochazka, Crystal wonders: "Did I do something wrong?"
"I didn't say no," she said. "I accepted his gifts. Was I wrong? It's so hard to talk about it."
From his position of authority as a Youthville employee, Prochazka on standard reports repeatedly gave Crystal poor grades for her behavior. Six other staff members gave her top scores in all nine categories when it was their turn to fill out the report.
Rathbun, who has more than 40 years of experience in social services, rejected Prochazka’s assertion that Crystal was sexually aggressive. A lot of girls in foster care have been sexualized at a young age, Rathbun said. The experience changes a child’s development and can alter her understanding of what people want.
Staff have the responsibility to set boundaries and refuse advances because they are the adults.
"Consent means do I have as much right to say yes as I have to say no," Rathbun said. "If my no is not going to be respected, then it's not consent."
Yoder left open the possibility that charges still could be filed against Prochazka because of the lengthy statute of limitations for child sex crimes under Kansas law. He was willing to listen to Crystal’s concerns.
"I would be glad to meet with her and sit down and visit with her about the case, talk to her in person," Yoder said. "I'd be glad to reopen the file and take a look at it."
Crystal, now 29 and pursuing her GED, said she will never be at peace. She relives the trauma every weekend when she delivers her son to Prochazka.
"He jokes around with me," Crystal said, "and tells me, 'Have you written your book yet? Whenever you write your book, remember to blank out my name.' Jokes about it like it's just some big funny thing, what he did to me."