New London nonprofit sued by former employee

New London — The former head of a popular after-school program has filed suit against the nonprofit Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut, claiming her termination in September was retaliation for concerns she raised over planned staff reductions that she warned would impact programming.

Jennifer Messina, who had for a time served in a dual role of senior director of marketing & community relations and director of youth services for the Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut, was responsible for oversight of the B.P. Learned Mission after-school program at 40 Shaw St.

In a suit filed in New London Superior Court last month, Messina — an at-will employee of the agency — claims she had a 15-year record of exemplary service to the organization before her abrupt firing on Sept. 12.

Her termination followed a series of budget-related interactions with senior staff at the agency that led to a multiday suspension for what she claims was no legitimate reason. Staff at B.P. Learned ultimately was reduced, she claims, despite assurances it would not be and against her warnings that the cuts could run afoul of state-mandated ratios of one staff member to 10 students.

The lawsuit argues Messina “engaged in a constitutionally protected activity when she reported on the risks associated with understaffing state-licensed programming,” and was fired “after a phony disciplinary allegation.” She is seeking an unspecified amount of damages and is represented by New London attorney Bryan Fiengo.

In an Oct. 1 letter to the personnel committee of the board of the Child and Family Agency, Messina called the months leading up to her firing as “the most demeaning, humiliating and emotionally destructive in my life.”

The agency disputes Messina's allegations.

Allison Blake, hired as chief executive officer of the Child and Family Agency in January, said in an email that she was limited on what she could say because of the pending litigation but disputes the allegations contained in the lawsuit. The agency, she said, plans to "vigorously" defend itself in court.

Parents and students, past and present, of the B.P. Learned program are dismayed by Messina’s termination, which has led to a groundswell of support for her return. In addition to approaching the board of directors and signing a petition, supporters have paid for three large ads in The Day expressing disappointment in recent decisions by the agency.

Funded by the United Way, the state and a variety of donors, B. P. Learned Mission provides after-school and vacation care to 60 children in kindergarten through fifth grade. B.P. Learned also works with community agencies to provide a variety of enrichment activities and support services.

Parents like Domonique Taylor of New London, whose son is enrolled in the B.P. Learned after-school program, said she was caught off guard by the news of “Ms. Jenn’s” departure.

“She’s is really good with the children. She’s very involved, speaks with all of the parents and we’re confused why she’s not there anymore,” Taylor said.

Asaada Craig, 19, who spent 10 years in the B.P. Learned program and is now a sophomore at Wheaton College, said Messina was an integral part of children’s lives and helped mentor her through the years.

B.P. Learned “became my second family ... a really important program that lots of families want their kids to be involved with,” Craig said. “A lot of the frustration is family and parents are asking what happened. Just knowing the role Jenn played in the community and in the lives of so many families ... it’s a little bit crazy.”

Blake said the board met with a group of parents last month to provide assurances the agency will maintain the activities at B.P. Learned and will have a senior director overseeing BP and is in the process of hiring a new coordinator.

A youth services director and senior director of marketing, the two positions previously held by Messina, are not among the 14 director positions listed on the agency’s website.

B.P. Learning Mission is one of an array of services offered by the Child and Family Agency, which last year served 10,500 children and families with 200 staff members and 500 volunteers, the agency’s website says. The agency also operates the New London Day Nursery and Early Childhood Development Center, child guidance clinics and in-home services for children with emotional and behavioral difficulties.

Messina, who earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University in 2006 while working part-time for the agency, left her mark at B.P. Learned by creating curriculum for enrichment programs, organized dozens of community events, developed a theater program and spearheaded fundraising campaigns, among other duties.

“Under Jen’s leadership, the BP Learned Mission continued to function well, with constant full enrollment, spotless licensure visits, enthusiastic consumer feedback, and positive results on all outcome measures,” a July 2019 performance review reads.

But in a Sept. 6 disciplinary letter announcing her three-day suspension, Messina was warned to “be open to models and change which are ultimately deemed necessary and in the overall Agency’s best interest.”

“Jen has been resistant and inflexible with regard to a new budget plan for the BP Learned Afterschool Program by not being receptive to plans for alternative use for the building, and being uncooperative in problem solving building use efficiencies,” the letter reads, in part.

Messina said she was asked on multiple occasions whether she wanted to be “part of the team” in addressing budget shortfalls but she argued for a decrease in expenses without compromising child safety.

Messina was told earlier this year she needed to choose between the two positions: marketing and youth activities director. She ultimately declined the promotion in order to retain her duties with B.P. Learned.

“She knew if she accepted that the mission would be in trouble. She did something many people would not do. She chose the children over herself,” said former Child and Family Agency Chief Executive Officer Thomas Gullotta, who retired about five years ago after more than 30 years with the agency.

“My guess is this lawsuit is not about money, rather it’s about letting everybody know what’s going on and hopefully finding the people in that organization that are good people to stand up and say, ‘No, this is wrong, stop,’” he said.

Gullotta said he thinks the board has “lost its moral compass.”

When she returned from her suspension on Sept. 10, Messina filed a grievance, indicating legal concerns and arguing that she was disciplined for no reason.

She was told by agency Chief Operating Officer Lisa Otto that she would be demoted. By Sept. 12, the agency’s human resources director, Danielle Ladia, told Messina her grievance was reviewed and the warning was rescinded. Blake then broke the news that as an “at will” employee, Messina was being terminated.

Messina said she was offered six months of salary and insurance coverage in exchange for “walking away quietly.”

g.smith@theday.com

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