A teenager who alleges she was sexually assaulted by a former employee at Santa Barbara-based Youth Interactive while she was part of the nonprofit program in 2014 has filed a civil lawsuit in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court.
Attorneys Don Ernst and Taylor Ernst of San Luis Obispo-based Ernst Law Group filed the lawsuit in October on behalf of Jane Doe, who was 14 years old at the time of the alleged assaults.
Named as a defendant in the suit is Jonathon Hernandez, a then 25-year-old artist and mentor to Doe, who apparently resides in San Luis Obispo County. He is accused of raping the teen at the home of Youth Interactive founder and CEO Nathalie Gensac.
“The conduct that occurred here should not have occurred,” Taylor Ernst, who is representing Doe, told Noozhawk in a statement. “Once it occurred, the conduct should have been reported to the police by the organization, which is a mandatory reporter of child abuse and neglect.
“The organization represents at-risk children, and needs to abide by the law to protect the children it serves. The organization put its own reputation above the truth and welfare of the children.”
Gensac and Youth Interactive also are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
“There is no merit to the allegations of the complaint,” Catherine Swysen, Gensac’s attorney, said in an email to Noozhawk. “We are confident that Ms. Gensac will be vindicated through the court process and that she will be able to return to her mission of helping the students of Santa Barbara who need it the most.”
The claim, which does not name the girl, describes her as an “at-risk youth with a history of being abused by adults.”
The teen, who is now 19, moved into Gensac’s Montecito house in May 2014, according to court documents.
The lawsuit alleges that Hernandez would come over, occasionally spending the night at Gensac’s house. Also according to the suit, Gensac states that other Youth Interactive students also would sometimes live in her home.
Court documents describe an evening in spring 2014 when Gensac, Hernandez and Jane Doe were watching a movie at the house. The adults were drinking red wine and smoking marijuana in the presence of Doe, and offered pot to the girl, the lawsuit claims.
The three watched a movie, and after it ended, Gensac allegedly left Doe and Hernandez alone after going to bed. Hernandez allegedly raped the teen on the sofa, according to the lawsuit.
He tried to reassure Doe that what happened was “OK and normal, as he was her mentor and she should trust him,” the claim states.
At the time of the allegations, Hernandez was “in a position of power” over the girl at Youth Interactive, according to the lawsuit.
After the alleged incident, Doe was transferred to the home of Emily Griffith, a coordinator overseeing all program participants and mentors.
Days after the alleged rape, when Griffith was driving Doe to the Youth Interactive office, Griffith stated she was aware of the sexual assault, according to the lawsuit. While in the parking lot of Youth Interactive, Griffith said she knew Hernandez and Doe had sex.
“Ms. Griffith told Jane Doe that she was not going to tell anyone about the assault,” the lawsuit states. “Ms. Griffith did not report the incident to the police.”
Several months after the assault, Doe was at the Youth Interactive office with Hernandez.
The lawsuit alleges that Hernandez was allowed to continue with the organization as a mentor, and he allegedly sexually assaulted Doe again at Youth Interactive’s office.
Hernandez continued his artwork and mentoring for Youth Interactive, and he was involved with the organization for the next few years.
In January 2017, Doe reported the 2014 rape to Gensac, who then told the Youth Interactive board of directors, according to the lawsuit.
Board members told Gensac “to take no action, directly contrary to the mandatory reporting requirements of California law,” the suit states, and Gensac agreed “to stay quiet and did not report the rape to the Santa Barbara police or any other government entity.”
Youth Interactive has seen a copy of the lawsuit, said Robert Forouzandeh, who is representing the organization. It had not been served with the complaint, he told Noozhawk last week.
“The organization has no knowledge of any of the claims made in the complaint, which arise from an alleged encounter five years ago,” he said. “Nonetheless, the allegations are extremely serious, and the organization is in the process of retaining an outside independent agency to investigate the allegations to determine if there is any truth behind them.”
Hernandez and Griffith are not currently affiliated with Youth Interactive, and they have not been for several years, Forouzandeh said.
The complaint asks the court for medical and incidental expenses, lost earnings, general damages, and punitive and exemplary damages in an amount to be determined at trial, treble damages against defendants who allegedly covered up the sexual assault, prejudgment and post judgment interest, and all costs and expenses incurred to bring the lawsuit.
The suit also seeks attorneys fees and “other and further relief as the court deems just and proper.”
Youth Interactive and its employees are “mandatory reporters” of child abuse, according to the lawsuit, which notes, “The mandatory reporting law is in place to prevent children from being abused and to end any possible abuse or neglect at the earliest possible stage.”
The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office did not file any sexual assault cases related to a “Jonathon Hernandez,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Mary Barron said.
California’s “mandated reporter” laws involving child abuse are found under the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, she said.
The intent and purpose of the act is to protect children from abuse and neglect by requiring certain “mandated reporters” to make a report of suspected child abuse and neglect to any police department, sheriff’s department, county probation department (if designated by the county to receive such reports) or county welfare department, Barron said.
Under state law, a mandatory reporter of child abuse or endangerment includes “an administrator or employee of a public or private youth center, youth recreation program or youth organization,” among others.
— Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.