Crime victim says she's job victim
Woman fired after attack; employer calls her a danger to staff, clients
Friday, February 27, 2004
By Ed Blazina, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
After two young suspects were arrested for forcing their way into her North Side home, putting a gun to her head and demanding money, Cheryl L. Cooper thought life would return to normal.
Cheryl Cooper recalls the day she was fired as a drug and alcohol counselor for Pyramid Healthcare in Wilkinsburg.
Click photo for larger image.
She was wrong.
The day after the arrests, she was fired from her job as a drug and alcohol counselor because the agency considered her a danger to its clients and staff. She's still out of work, and this week filed a lawsuit against Pyramid Healthcare Inc., seeking damages for wrongful discharge.
"It was and still is bewildering to me," Cooper, 47, said in an interview in the Downtown office of her lawyer Paul Laughlin. "They treated me like I was the criminal, like I had done something wrong."
Laughlin said it was a difficult case because Cooper was an at-will employee who could be fired for almost any reason. His suit argues that because she was a witness and crime victim, her firing was "a violation of a clearly mandated public policy ... which strikes at the heart of a citizen's social rights, duties and responsibilities."
Andrea Shope, director of communications for Altoona-based Pyramid, said she couldn't comment directly on Cooper's case, but said the agency puts a premium on safety. Pyramid operates 15 programs in Western Pennsylvania, including inpatient drug and alcohol treatment, transitional housing for jail inmates and a group home for juvenile offenders.
"The people we treat are a very vulnerable population, and we do everything we can to keep our clients protected and safe," she said.
Cooper's problems began Oct. 2, when she stayed home from her job at Pyramid Healthcare Transitions, an inpatient facility in Wilkinsburg, because she was sick.
At about 10 a.m., two teenagers she knew knocked at her door and asked to see her son, Carl Valenti, 19. She went to get him, but he was asleep and she told the visitors to call in about an hour.
After the young men left, Cooper said, she realized that a leather cigarette case that had been on the table was missing.
When the two returned with a third teenager two hours later, Cooper said, she told them they weren't allowed in the house because she believed they had stolen the case during their previous visit. They professed their innocence, but she told them to leave.
Later that afternoon, Cooper said, her son had left and she was washing clothes in the basement when she heard a loud knock on the door. When she opened the door, she said, she was confronted by the first two teens, one wearing a bandanna and the other a ski mask with large holes that left him easily identifiable.
"The one pulled a gun out and put it to my forehead and told me to lie down on the floor," Cooper recalled. "That's what I did. But for a brief second, I thought they were going to say this was a prank."
While the gunman remained with her and took money out of a purse, the other teen ransacked the upstairs of the house, taking an empty safe and leaving. The gunman remained behind.
"I kept wondering, 'Why is he not leaving? Is he going to kill me?' " said Cooper, choking back tears.
After a couple of minutes, the gunman told Cooper to stay on the floor and count to 200 after he left.
Cooper reported the incident to police and, aware that it would be reported on television, called her employer "so they would know what happened" and could tell her clients she hadn't been hurt.
Eight days later, someone fired three shots into her house. One went through a window and two through the front door while she was playing upstairs with her 11-month-old granddaughter, Destyni, after the baby's evening bath.
If her son or husband, Bruce, had been home, they likely would have been in the living room where the bullets hit, she said.
As a result, her pastor at Allegheny Center Christian & Missionary Alliance Church suggested she leave the neighborhood and paid for her family to stay at a hotel. She hasn't been back home since, except to collect belongings.
Three days after the house was shot up, Cooper said, a pair of Beltzhoover brothers were arrested and charged in the home invasion. Laron Morris, 18, and James Morris, 16, of Allen Street, were jailed and subsequently held for court on charges of robbery, burglary and conspiracy.
The day after the arrest, police suggested Cooper enter the Witness Protection Program and her doctor suggested she take a couple of weeks off work to recover from the emotional trauma.
When she called Pyramid to arrange a temporary leave of absence, her supervisor told her to stop in the human resources office as soon as she came in.
Cooper said she was shocked when she went to see Jill Wharrey, the office's human resources coordinator. Wharrey told her she was fired because the agency considered her a danger to its clients and staff.
"She said, 'Well, Cheryl, unfortunately we're going to have to terminate your employment with Pyramid,' " Cooper said. "I was, like, in shock."
After being required to sign a form stating the reason for her dismissal, Cooper was escorted from the building and told she could return only to gather her belongings.
The form, signed by Wharrey and Marlene Johnson, then director of the facility, said:
"As per our conversation on 10/13/03, you indicated the danger that you were recently subjected to. This has raised safety issues for our staff and clients. We believe there is potential danger to our staff and clients as long as you are employed with Pyramid Healthcare Inc. As a result of this, effective immediately your position with Pyramid Healthcare Inc. is being terminated."
"This is tragic," Laughlin said. "It is blaming the victim and punishing the victim for being involved in a crime.
"It presents the message not to cooperate with the police because it could come back to hurt you. That logic would fire anybody who ever filed a protection-from-abuse order against their spouse."
Part of the irony, Laughlin said, is that many of Pyramid's clients have criminal backgrounds or dealings with criminals.
Mary Volkar, a therapist at the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime, said firing a crime victim adds to "the whole big ball of horror" a victim faces.
"This is what we call secondary victimization," she said. "Now this person is being victimized again, not by supposed criminals but by her employer."
Cooper had worked as a therapist with Pyramid for about 20 months after previous stints at Gateway Rehabilitation Center and Light of Life Rescue Mission. She had received satisfactory evaluations from Pyramid and said she was under consideration for a promotion when she was fired.