A Warning Unheeded Anneewakee Mystery Lingers On After Trials

A Warning Unheeded
Anneewakee Mystery Lingers On After Trials

BYLINE: WALSTON, CHARLES Charles Walston Staff Writer STAFF
DATE: November 27, 1988
PUBLICATION: The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution
EDITION: The Atlanta Journal Constitution
SECTION: STATE NEWS
PAGE: B/1
More than two years after disgruntled board members sparked an investigation of sexual exploitation and alleged financial fraud at Anneewakee,
the mystery lingers. Louis J. Poetter, the 69-year-old founder of the facility, is serving an eight-year prison term for sodomy, but his
conviction did not explain how he was able to have sex with male patients for 16 years after a state agency first heard allegations about such
activity. Authorities and advocates for former patients offer a number of possible explanations. They cite a reorganization of state government
that occurred in 1972, the fact that society was skeptical about sexual abuse at the time such allegations were first publicly leveled against
Poetter in 1970, and his longtime associa tion with T.M. “Jim” Parham, a powerful state official who was in charge of agencies that were supposed
to regulate Anneewakee. Dressed in orange jail clothes and a baggy blue windbreaker, Louis J. Poetter sat in a Douglas County courtroom last week
and responded to questions about the Anneewakee psychiatric center.
During 90 minutes on the witness stand, he provided few answers.
More than two years after disgruntled board members sparked an investigation of sexual exploitation and alleged financial fraud at Anneewakee,
the mystery lingers. Poetter, the 69-year-old founder of the facility, is serving an eight-year prison term for sodomy, but his conviction did
not explain how he was able to have sex with male patients for 16 years after a state agency first heard allegations about such activity.
Authorities and advocates for former patients offer a number of possible explanations. They cite a reorganization of state government that
occurred in 1972, the fact that society was skeptical about sexual abuse at the time such allegations were first publicly leveled against Poetter
in 1970, and his longtime association with T.M. “Jim” Parham, a powerful state official who was in charge of agencies that were supposed to
regulate Anneewakee.
“I’m embarrassed that our state had friends of his that were in charge of monitoring him, and I feel like that helped contribute to the lack of
supervision or lack of detection,” Douglas County District Attorney Frank Winn, who prosecuted Poetter, said last week.
Mr. Parham headed the state Division of Children and Youth and later was deputy commissioner and commissioner of the Department of Human
Resources (DHR) between 1971 and 1977. He joined the Anneewakee board of directors in 1979 and became chairman of the board when Poetter resigned
his post as executive director in 1986.
After Mr. Parham became the chairman of the Anneewakee board, he did not cooperate with the criminal investigation of Poetter, according to
Douglas County Sheriff Earl Lee. Mr. Parham denied access to some witnesses and documents and declined to share information with law enforcement
authorities, the sheriff said.
“I told him when we came to Anneewakee, the officers had the feeling like they were going to the dentist,” Sheriff Lee said.
Mr. Parham denies that he was uncooperative, but said he could not allow authorities to violate the confidentiality of Anneewakee patients. “Our
efforts to live up to our responsibilities in that regard never seemed to sit well with him,” he said in an interview earlier this month.
“Sheriff Lee doesn’t like anybody to be reluctant to do what he says.”
Founded by Poetter in 1962, Anneewakee attempts to treat troubled adolescents with group activities in a wilderness setting, as well as with
traditional therapy. The program has a campus for boys in Douglasville and Carrabelle, Fla., and a site for girls in Rockmart, Ga.
Mr. Parham said he never knew of Poetter’s sexual involvement with Anneewakee’s male patients, but he had heard allegations about such behavior
as early as 1970, when he testified on Poetter’s behalf at a hearing of the State Board for Children and Youth. That board was considering
whether to revoke Anneewakee’s license because of accusations by some patients.
Mr. Parham told the hearing panel he had known Poetter for 20 years, beginning when they worked together in the Fulton County Juvenile Court. The
two men often took adolescents on camping trips together, Mr. Parham said, and he sometimes stayed in Poetter’s home.
The hearing resulted in an agreement with Anneewakee that Poetter would be replaced as director of the program. The Board of Children and Youth
interpreted that to mean he would have no direct contact with patients. Several months later, Mr. Parham was named director of the Division of
Children and Youth, which was supposed to enforce the consent order.
“Whatever the order was, I left it in place. No one on my staff ever came to me and said there’s a problem with compliance,” Mr. Parham said.
A July 1972 memo from an investigator for the Division of Family and Children Services questioned whether Poetter was violating the 1970
agreement. Mr. Parham said he never saw that document, which was addressed to a subordinate of his.
Another memo written by Mr. Parham on Nov. 5, 1973, when he was deputy commissioner of the DHR, concerned Anneewakee’s attempt to become licensed
as a special hospital. By March 22, 1974, Anneewakee had gained the special licensing that enabled it to receive medical insurance payments. The
change in status also meant a different state agency became responsible for licensing the facility, which hampered enforcement of the 1970
agreement.
Mr. Parham said his interest in the Anneewakee program during his time at DHR was not improper, and he did not pressure staff members to ignore
the 1970 order regarding Poetter. “They have told me they never felt intimidated in any way,” he said.
It is unlikely that any DHR staff member could have been unaware of Poetter’s past relationship with their boss, and the two men apparently
remained personal friends through the mid-1970s. In a handwritten note to Poetter on his DHR letterhead, dated June 20, 1975, Mr. Parham wrote:
“Dear Louis, Just a quick note to thank you for the tour. I was greatly impressed w/ your program and the attitudes of the boys w/ whom I spoke.
You and your staff deserve great credit for the job you are doing. If I could send more state kids, I certainly would; they all seem to be doing
well. … keep up the good work. As ever, Jim.”
Mr. Parham, now a professor of social work at the University of Georgia, “is not accused of anything,” according to Sheriff Lee. But he is named
as a defendant in two of the six lawsuits that have been filed against Anneewakee and various individuals on behalf of more than 100 former
patients.
In an affidavit filed in one of those cases, former Anneewakee board member Bete Advani said she reported stories about Poetter’s sexual conduct
to Mr. Parham before and after he became chairman in 1986. Mr. Parham said he heard “rumors” about Poetter around that time, but did not go to
police. Instead he ordered an internal investigation, and Poetter resigned about a month later.
Mr. Parham and some others associated with state government have their own explanations for the failure to enforce the 1970 consent order. The
order was vague, and it fell through the cracks of different agencies when then-Gov. Jimmy Carter reorganized the bureaucracy in 1972, according
to Jewel Norman, deputy director of the Governor’s Office for Children and Youth, and a former deputy commissioner of DHR.
“I still believe the state didn’t do a very good job of maintaining records or staying on top of what was happening during that period of time,”
Ms. Norman said. “I am not suggesting negligence, but I don’t think through that transition . . . maybe one could assume maybe all was not done
that could have been done.”
People on all sides of the case agree that the warnings from 1970 were probably ignored in part because of the prevailing attitude toward sexual
abuse, particularly involving disturbed children. Increased awareness of that problem in recent years, and better monitoring of facilities such
as Anneewakee, would make it difficult for a similar situation to exist today, they say.
“I’m not telling you it’s perfect, I just think it’s infinitely better than it was in 1970,” Ms. Norman said.
Anneewakee has taken steps of its own to make sure such events are never repeated there, according to James Weiss, the new director who took over
in the spring of 1987. The rights of patients are more fully explained and dutifully followed, he said.
“You have to be vigilant,” he said. “Once you fall into the trap of thinking it could never happen, that’s when . . . it could happen.”
Nobody presently associated with Anneewakee was accused of any wrongdoing in the investigation that began two years ago, but the program remains
stunted. Enrollment dropped from a high of 316 in 1986 to a low of 81 in 1987. It was at 117 last week.
While Mr. Weiss and his colleagues struggle to build Anneewakee’s future, its past remains clouded. The investigation resulted in criminal
charges against Poetter and nine other former employees, but few details have been disclosed in court, and no more trials are scheduled.
Poetter entered a guilty plea in April, and his testimony last week at the non-jury trial of another former employee, who also was convicted of
sodomy, shed no light on what occurred at Anneewakee. Three of the defendants have already pleaded guilty or no contest to misdemeanors, two will
probably not be prosecuted and Mr. Winn said he will decide soon whether there is sufficient evidence to seek indictments of the other three.
The related lawsuits have produced stacks of allegations about sexual abuse and financial wrongdoings, but none is likely to go to trial before
next summer, if then.
Meanwhile, Poetter has been informed by the state parole board that he will serve seven years of his eight-year sentence. By the time of his
tentative release in March 1995, he will be 75 years old; and it will be more than 25 years since the first warnings about Anneewakee were heard
and dismissed.
Chronology of Events at the Anneewakee Center

September 1970 – State Board for Children and Youth conducts hearing regarding allegations that Louis J. Poetter is sexually involved with male
patients at Anneewakee. The board and Anneewakee agree that Poetter will be replaced as administrator.

July 1972 – The Division of Children and Youth and the State Board for Children and Youth are abolished, and responsibility for Anneewakee is
transferred to newly created Department of Human Resources (DHR).

November 1973 – Prompted by inquiries from Poetter, DHR Deputy Commissioner T.M. “Jim” Parham writes a memo to staffers about Anneewakee’s
problems obtaining license as a special hospital.

March 1974 – Anneewakee receives special hospital license.

October 1979 – Mr. Parham returns from a job in the White House and accepts a position on the Anneewakee board of trustees.

July 1986 – Mr. Parham becomes chairman of the Anneewakee board, and orders an internal investigation of reports about sexual misconduct and
financial wrongdoing. Poetter resigns as executive director. Law enforcement authorities also begin an investigation.

October 1986 – Poetter is arrested for sodomy and other charges, and later is released on $1 million bond. Nine other former Anneewakee
employees, including his wife, Mable Poetter, are arrested.

April 1988 – Poetter pleads guilty to 19 counts of sodomy involving 12 former Anneewakee patients. As part of the same negotiated settlement,
Mrs. Poetter also pleads guilty to misdemeanor charge of failure to report child abuse. The Poetters agree to give up about $5 million worth of
land, which they have bought through a private corporation and leased to the non-profit Anneewakee foundation. The land will be deeded to
Anneewakee.