BELFAST, Maine — A girl whom a Sweetser employee allegedly sexually assaulted while the teen was living at the residential treatment facility in Belfast is suing the nonprofit organization for negligence, negligent supervision and more.
The teen, identified as Jane Doe, and her mother also are suing former Sweetser employee Trey Knof. The 25-year-old from Newcastle is currently in jail awaiting trial on multiple charges that include unlawful sexual touching of a minor, gross sexual assault, violation of conditions of release and the possession of sexually explicit material.
The lawsuit alleges that Knof sexually assaulted the girl, even after Sweetser fired him, and that Sweetser didn’t take appropriate action after learning of the employee’s behavior.
Sweetser attorney Devin Deane of Portland said Friday that the organization denies the allegations.
“When conduct issues came to light, Sweetser ended its relationship with the former employee and notified the appropriate authorities,” he said.
The teen was admitted to Sweetser’s Belfast residential treatment program in December 2018 when she was 13. Officials from the agency were aware she had endured multiple childhood sexual assaults and needed specialized treatment and protective precautions, according to the complaint filed by her lawyer, Stephen Smith of Augusta.
Nevertheless, the company hired Knof as a caregiver in January 2019 and didn’t conduct an adequate background check, the lawsuit, filed earlier this month in Somerset County Superior Court, alleges.
“Knof had no prior experience and no special training to be a counselor or caregiver,” the lawsuit said. “Knof’s sole qualification to work at Sweetser seemed to be that he had worked as a veterinary assistant at an animal hospital.”
Knof was assigned to the girl’s unit, where despite a lack of training on maintaining boundaries or appropriate treatment of young girls with traumatic histories, his job was to drive the teen and other residents to appointments and provide emotional support, according to the lawsuit.
Knof “began having an inappropriate relationship” with the girl in the summer of 2019, according to the lawsuit. That June, the teen told staff at Waldo County General Hospital’s emergency department, where she had been taken for a crisis evaluation, that she thought she was pregnant and that she had had unprotected sexual intercourse the previous week.
A few days later, she was taken 200 miles north to Aroostook Mental Health Services’ Children’s Crisis Unit in Fort Fairfield. Knof visited her there, had her sit on his lap and was seen touching her inappropriately, according to the lawsuit.
“During this visit, Knof told Plaintiff, ‘We can secretly date until you are older, because if anyone finds out, I could get in legal trouble,’” the lawsuit said.
The crisis unit’s director called Sweetser after learning of Knof’s visit. The Aroostook County staff also notified the girl’s mother, identified as Mary Doe in the lawsuit.
But Sweetser officials and staff never asked the girl about Knof’s visit or informed her mom. When her mom brought it up with Sweetser staff in a meeting that month, she was told the matter was “handled,” the lawsuit said.
Knof made special visits to the girl’s unit weekly, and sometimes daily, just to see her, according to the lawsuit. He would also take bets with colleagues as to “who could sleep with plaintiff first,” the lawsuit alleged. In addition, when Sweetser staff thought the teen needed to be disciplined, they called on Knof to restrain her by having her sit on his lap while he pressed her closely to him.
“This ‘discipline’ was performed frequently by Knof,” the lawsuit said.
Sweetser held multiple counseling sessions with Knof over many months in regards to “breaking boundaries” with the girl, and at some point the agency warned him and asked him not to go to her unit.
But in December 2019, Knof entered the girl’s room and sexually assaulted her, leaving a bag of Skittles behind, “as if for payment,” the lawsuit alleged. An hour or so later, another employee asked the girl why Knof had visited and how the girl had gotten the candy. But Sweetser never addressed the incident, according to the lawsuit.
Knof was fired on Jan. 3, 2020, but the agency didn’t tell the girl’s mother or take further precautions. A few days later, the unsupervised teen met Knof in the parking lot of the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast, where he sexually assaulted and abused her in his vehicle, the lawsuit said.
The teen spent the next weekend at her mother’s Somerset County home, and while she was there, Knof snuck into her bedroom window and sexually assaulted her, according to the lawsuit. Knof also told the teen he still had a set of keys to Sweetser, and then made a plan to run away with her to another state.
On Jan. 13, someone found a tablet computer at the Belfast residential center that contained messages between Knof and the girl, including explicit photos and sexual memes. A sex toy was also found in the girl’s room, as well as a handwritten, sexually explicit letter that said “From Trey” at the top.
Sweetser finally notified the girl’s mother about Knof’s abuse and reported it to the Belfast Police Department that day, the lawsuit said. Three days later, detectives talked to the girl, who said she had frequently had sex with Knof, and that the two “talked continuously” through social media.
But she told the police that Sweetser staff did not notice, because she was “‘invisible to them,” according to the lawsuit.
After Knof was arrested and charged in connection with the alleged sexual abuse, the girl tried to process her feelings about what had happened with other Sweetser staff.
“Instead of listening to Plaintiff with support and understanding, Sweetser’s staff threatened Plaintiff with punishment for discussing these events,” the lawsuit said.
But Sweetser staff did tell colleagues and other residents about Knof, and the girl faced harassment from other residents as a result.
The lawsuit seeks to find Sweetser liable for negligence, negligent supervision, invasion of privacy and negligent infliction of emotional distress. It also seeks to find Knof liable for sexual assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages, costs and attorney’s fees from both Sweetser and Knof.
Jeremy Pratt of Camden, a defense attorney representing Knof on the criminal charges but not the civil matter, said Thursday that he had no comment.