WREG investigates Youth Villages sexual abuse allegation

LINDEN, Tenn. — WREG has uncovered a disturbing allegation regarding sexual assault of a former resident of Youth Villages by a former employee.

The employee, a 20-year veteran at Youth Villages, worked there until November 2017. It was the same month the alleged victim told his story to law enforcement.

The Deer Valley campus of Youth Villages is nestled inside the hills of Perry County, Tennessee.

More than two and a half hours east of Memphis, it serves as a psychiatric, residential treatment center for boys ages 11 to 17.

The campus is tucked away, roughly two miles off the main road. It's a natural setting designed to provide healing and stability for troubled young boys.

"Mostly, a lot of anger stuff, you know, a lot of misbehavior, acting up in school, disrespect, oppositional stuff," said Brian White of some of the types of problems they dealt with.

Brian White is a licensed, clinical social worker.

He currently serves as the director for a group of mental health centers near Perry County.

White worked at Deer Valley in the late 1990s, early 2000s.

"I was a counselor, I was over the Mountaineer group, which is a group of younger kids, 12 to 14," explained White.

Late last year, White says a former resident, someone who was in that group when he was a counselor at Deer Valley, reached out to him with a disturbing allegation.

White said, "His call to me came out of the blue."

WREG asked, "His call to you came out of the blue, when he reached out to you, what did he say?"

White replied, "He said that during his, one of three placements there, and I didn`t know that he was there three different occasions. I only know the one. He said that he had been severely, sexually abused, raped on a ongoing basis by a colleague of mine."

White and another social worker outlined the allegations in a letter to WREG last November at the former resident's request, just a few days after he'd filed a report with law enforcement.

WREG obtained a copy of the report filed with the Perry County Sheriff's Office, dated Nov. 9, 2017.

To be clear, White says he didn't provide professional services to the former resident, but instead, encouraged him to seek help with someone else, due to a potential conflict of interest.

WREG asked, "What was your initial reaction in hearing that this type of alleged abuse could, could have occurred between an authority figure and a resident?"

White said, "I was shocked, be honest with you. I was almost devastated."

Devastated, White says, because he was there.

"I was shocked that I didn`t know, I didn`t sense it was happening."

In the incident report, the former resident explained to law enforcement he was "... placed at Deer Valley in 1997 and stayed there on and off until 2000."

The report states he told investigators "... he was sexually molested by one of his counselors."

It continues, "... sexually abused by a counselor named Francis Agunenye."

According to the report, the former resident said "... this occurred almost nightly and that on one occasion another resident 'who he did not remember their name' had been a witness."

The former resident told investigators "... he had tried to report what was happening to him but he was threatened by Mr. Agunenye and other counselors."

"What the victim alleged that he said was that he would threaten him with, you'll never go home, you'll never get a visit, you'll never do this, you'll never do that," said White.

WREG contacted Youth Villages to inquire about Agunenye, his employment and the allegations.

Through a series of emailed statements, a spokesperson confirmed Agunenye was employed at Youth Villages from 1997 to Nov. 3, 2017.

Online records show Agunenye had risen through the ranks at Youth Villages, eventually serving as the director of the Bartlett Campus.

According to the statement, Youth Villages became aware of the allegations in November 2017 and "... immediately took action and reported the allegations to Child Protective Services ... and encouraged the young man to report the incident directly to the authorities in Perry County."

A spokesperson wrote CPS "quickly" conducted a review and "There were no adverse findings against Youth Villages, and no new allegations related to the employee in question were discovered."

In a followup statement, Youth Villages CEO Patrick Lawler said Youth Villages couldn't provide specific details related to employees or clients, but said, "However, the employee in question no longer works for Youth Villages."

WREG continued to press for an on-camera interview given the nature of the allegations, Agunenye's history of promotions and his contact with children.

We also wanted to ask Youth Villages if there would be any attempt to contact former residents.

After repeated denials, we tried speaking with Lawler at the Youth Villages annual 5k in April.

Reporter Zaneta Lowe said, "I`m Zaneta from Channel 3."

Lawler asked, "Is this about the race today?"

Lowe responded. "No."

We wanted to be clear about why we were trying to speak with Lawler.

Lowe continued, "We wanted to be honest and just see if we could get a few minutes of your time."

But Lawler immediately walked away from our camera and tried to hide his face.

After standing silently for the national anthem, the Youth Villages CEO disappeared into the crowd.

News Channel 3 reached out to Agunenye to get his side of the story, and he directed us to his attorney, William Massey.

Massey said, "Twenty years has gone by now, 20 years and these type of allegations are being made, you have to say why."

Furthermore, Massey says Agunenye willingly sat for a polygraph, one conducted by a polygraphist with advanced certification in sex offender detection, and it came back showing no deception.

"And he was asked by the polygrapher, did you commit any sexual offenses or try to commit any type of sexual act against any of the children, young people at Youth Villages, he said no. And the test came back that he`s telling the truth."

Massey told WREG Youth Villages fired Agunenye, and given what he's learned, it's a decision he believes was unfair to an employee of 20 years.

"I guess it`s just hard to understand why we reach a judgment so quickly."

Massey says such allegations can be devastating, whether true or not, so he wanted to speak with WREG to share what he called the full story.

"He has a wonderful family, that he loves and that he tries to protect. And he`s coming forward with this now only because he must to protect his family," said Massey.

According to the incident report, "It was determined this case could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has expired."

White says he understands the law fully, but worries it doesn't always protect potential victims.

"I`m concerned that if this is not addressed that he may get another job working with children and more victims will be created."

WREG spoke by phone to the victim when we first began investigating the allegations last year. He was of course, aware of the letter written on his behalf and reiterated the concerns.

We also talked to his attorney, who spoke about how well his client had done in life, given all he'd been through.

News Channel 3 also spoke with the Department of Children's Services and tried to get more details about its investigation, but a spokesperson said CPS case files are confidential.

As for any deeper probe, he explained DCS can only investigate cases involving children.

If an adult reports abuse that happened as a child, it would be up to law enforcement to look into the allegations.

Youth Villages says families and employees are aware of its reporting procedures, including an internal, anonymous integrity hotline.

If you're the victim of sexual assault call police or the Rape Crisis Center at 901- 222-4350.

To report child sex abuse call the Department of Children's Services hotline at 877-237-0004.