On December 18, Sherrie Kuns-Fehlman filed a complaint against her former employer, The Grace Homes. The charges are discrimination, harassment and retaliation resulting in termination.
Her suit claims that The Grace Homes, “Denied a work environment free of discrimination and/or retaliation” that ended in her losing her job. The complaint revolves around the actions of The Grace Homes’ current chief financial officer, Phil Luna.
Complicating matters, The Grace Homes is a ministry started by Kuns-Fehlman parents. Her father Gale Kuns was,until recently, the CEO and Kuns-Fehlman, her siblings, and her daughter were all employed at various capacities, making for a legacy of three generations.
The Grace Homes was started in the 1980’s by husband and wife team, Gale and Glenda Kuns. They were motivated to start a home for pregnant teen-age girls after witnessing a right-to-life rally. The participants of the rally were only interested in the fetus rather than what happened to the mother or the child after it was born. The Kuns decided to buy their first group home for $800 and started out with six pregnant girls.
At the ministry’s height they had 11 homes with 85 beds, a foster center, and a boys’ home. In 2014, the state paid them $3.2 million in compensation for taking care of the emotionally high-risk pregnant girls. Grace ministries was the only place in the state that was licensed and had the ability to deal with the emotional needs of sex-trafficked pregnant girls and other victims of sexual abuse. Kuns-Fehlman made this possible because she was a licensed forensic counselor among her many other social work capabilities.
Gale Kuns said that he and Luna attended the same church, Visalia First Assembly, and that Luna contacted him through Linked-In to ask for a job. Luna was in desperate straits as his unemployment had run out and he was unable to pay his mortgage. Luna was recommended by other leaders in their church so Kuns thought he would give Luna a chance. Luna had been the CFO of First Assembly and Kuns wanted to see if he would work out as CFO of Grace Homes, then Kuns could retire. Now looking back at it, Kuns feels like Luna could just smell the money after such a successful 2014, Kuns said.
Kuns-Fehlmans said that the sexual abuse started with his first walk through of the Ministries in January of 2015. Her complaint alleges that Luna inappropriately touched her on several occasions and created a generally hostile work environment. After a particularly bad incident she refused to ever return to the office if Luna were still there. She and her father allege that eight or nine female employees were also not comfortable working with Luna and went on stress leave. Some of the women were allegedly fired because of their complaints about him and one was pregnant.
Luna’s responsibilities as CFO included creating budgets, being the benefits administrator and other administrative duties. Reports started coming back to Kuns that Luna was sleeping on the job and sometimes went to one of the group homes and fell asleep on the couch.
Melo and Sarsfield, Kuns-Fehlman’s lawyers, said other female employees described Luna’s behavior as “overall creepy.”
By the May board of directors meeting, Luna still had not put together a budget for 2015 or started his other duties as CFO. Kuns also said he received complaints from employees that Luna and a female employee would go into his office, lock the door, draw the blinds and turn off the lights and not emerge for a lengthy period of time. Because of the alleged sexual harassment, sleeping on the job, and nothing to show for his five months of employment, Kuns fired Luna May 12. Kuns stated his case to the board of directors at the June 8 regular meeting.
As a result of firing Luna, The Grace Homes governing board held a special meeting June 29 and decided to completely remove Kuns from the ministry and replace him with Luna. They passed several resolutions stating not only was Kuns unjustified in firing Luna, but that Kuns had mismanaged the ministry and misappropriated funds. The resolutions also made clear that no employee will communicate with the Kuns family lest they lose their job. Luna was reinstated as CFO and all members of the Kuns family were banned from coming onto The Grace Homes premises.
The board had posted warning letters on the doors of the ministry that if Gale Kuns or any of his family tried to enter to call the police. Kuns said that, “I just got up one day from my office and never came back.”
Kuns-Fehlman explained in her Additional Complaint Details against The Grace Homes that, “After becoming the agency head, Mr. Luna then caused me to be fired from my job of almost 30 years. I believe the firing was done in retaliation for my complaint. In addition to being fired, Mr. Luna and the agency tried to wrongfully evict me from my residence on both Sumter and Princeton Streets and tried to have me arrested for trespassing in my own home. Also, they withheld my pay. After complaining of the withholding of my pay to the Department of Industrial Relations I was fired on the day my complaint was successfully settled in my favor.”
Kuns-Fehlman stated that six hours after she won her labor case she was fired.
The Grace Ministries Board Member Gives His Side
A current board of directors’member was willing to give his view of the facts if we did not publish his name. He said that Kuns was actually taken out of the ministry after a state investigation. He said the state took their time investigating and that the judge really came down on him. The judge ruled thatKuns could not have any involvement in running institutions such as The Grace Homes for three years.
The root of the problem was that The Grace Homes did not have the right permits for all the types of people they were helping. Now the state, county and city were nailing them for use of permit violations. He said that the ministry is supported by the state for each pregnant girl they take care of but now, because of the permit violations, they can’t take in those girls.
”It’s like Ring around the Rosie,” he said.
According to Kuns. the ministry is on the verge of losing their accreditation this March and acknowledged that permitting problems started in December, 2014, when he was still at the helm. Kuns said that Luna’s leadership has made things worse. Kuns also pointed out the inappropriateness of putting someone in charge of an abused girls’ home who has been accused of sexual abuse himself.
The board member countered by saying that now he believes that from the beginning Kuns wasn’t following the original use permit. The original use permit was only for taking care of pregnant girls. The ministry rescued all kinds of girls then also started helping boys but apparently never got the appropriate permits to do so.
“The whole problem is that Kuns was held in high esteem and never questioned. Then the state took him out of the Ministry because of all of the things he did. I always told the board that I wanted an investigative reporter to research all this and bring it out into the open,” said the board member.
The board member lamented that instead of helping The Grace Homes succeed, that everywhere the ministry turned, no one would help. The sad part, he said, is that The Grace Homes is the only facility in the state that takes sexually traumatized and sex-trafficked pregnant girls.
“You’d think they would be helping us to keep the ministry going, not shutting us down,” he said.“We just haven’t had anyone on our side.”
Both the board member and Kuns agree that the Ministry is out of money and that it is on the verge of getting its license revoked. The Grace Homes is down to 20 girls and four babies.
The board member said with an attitude of resignation, “my prayer and hope is that we will be able to fix it.”
As far as the allegations against Luna, the board member felt that they were all fraud. His opinion of Luna was that he was a man of high moral character and that he was doing everything he could to keep the ministry going. The board member knows Luna and he did not believe Kuns-Fehlman’s nor the other women’s allegations. The board member said that there were a lot of holes in Kuns-Fehlman’s story and that Luna was not even there at the time of some of the alleged incidents.
“I don’t think her case will go anywhere,” he said. It’s just one more stick in the spokes of the wheel to bring down the ministry.”
The Valley Voice will be doing a series of articles on this situation as the facts reveal themselves and the court case proceeds. In a phone interview, Luna said he was unaware of a suit filed by Kuns-Fehlman, and doubted a current board member spoke to this reporter. Luna will be giving his side of the story in a follow-up article, after he has a chance to read Kuns-Fehlman’s suit.