I-TEAM: Local veteran’s plea to the VA goes unnoticed
Warning: Some readers may find this story graphic
AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - A VA employee in a position of trust was accused of preying on a vulnerable patient under his care.
A retired Army veteran sought help for PTSD after combat. In a federal lawsuit, she says her therapist at Charlie Norwood exploited her vulnerabilities in the worst way and the administration ignored it.
Hidden behind the small tinted windows five stories up at 1 Freedom Parkway is where Jolynda sought help for PTSD.
“I was engaged in combat fight,” the veteran told I-TEAM’s Liz Owens.
“Did you see a lot of death?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I have a lot of mental health problems.”
Jolynda hasn’t recovered from the trauma of war nor the trauma she says she experienced while at home seeking help for PTSD at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center.
“As a veteran, I should have been their priority, but I wasn’t. I do not trust the VA.”
We asked: “Is it hard for you to sit down and talk about this right now?”
But Joylinda’s accusations ring loud and clear in a federal lawsuit: “Therapist Peeples used his employment as an addiction therapist to groom me for his sexual desires.”
“Therapist Peeples kissed me and touched my breasts multiple times during our therapy sessions at the Charlie Norwood Medical Center.”
“…rough sex….ejaculating inside me against my will.”
“He was my therapist,” Jolynda said. “One afternoon we were in his office doing a session and during the session, he just brought up his home life and his family and how he would treat me and from there everything escalated.”
Linkedin lists Alvin Peeples as an addiction therapist at Charlie Norwood. Personnel files obtained by the I-TEAM show he worked as a police officer at the VA before transferring over to mental health services at Charlie Norwood. Peeples also ran an outpatient anger awareness program.
Joylinda saw him for anger related to the violence she experienced during combat.
“He knew I was a victim of military sexual trauma and he used that to prey upon me. He used his position and his power to prey upon me he knew all these things about me,” she said.
A recording on Jolynda’s cell phone captures an explicit conversation between the therapist and his patient in December of 2017:
Peeples: “I won’t see you until when?”
Jolynda: “I’ll be back on the 21st.”
Peeples: “I’ll see you in my office?”
Jolynda: “That Tuesday.”
Peeples: “Okay. I hope I satisfied you.”
Jolyda: “I just don’t like you cumming inside of me.”
Peeples: “I’m sorry. That’s won’t happen again.”
“He got me at a time when I was vulnerable,” Jolynda told I-TEAM’s Liz Owens.
According to court records, Jolynda told her primary therapist, a colleague of Peeples, that Peeples violated her during their sessions and committed sexual acts against her will outside of the VA.
Jolynda’s medical records from the visit with her primary therapist that day state: “…she came there to discuss an event that activated her trauma.”
“She was disgusted and said she would handle it,” Jolynda recalled.
The VA policy not only prohibits employee behaviors that could result in abuse, including sexual involvement with patients but also mandates employees to immediately report information of criminal allegations or violations to VA police.
Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. Jolynda stopped treatment while her alleged attack continued seeing other patients.
“I didn’t feel comfortable going into the VA…I tried to kill myself numerous times after this,” the veteran said. The VA also denied her request to seek mental health services outside of Charlie Norwood.
PJ Campanero is Jolynda’s attorney. She says seeking legal justice, in this case, meant going after sovereign immunity.
“You can only sue the government when the government allows you to sue them,” Campanero explained.
One must file under the federal tort claims act before a lawsuit can be filed against the government. The act allows an individual an opportunity to hold the feds or the state accountable when a government employee commits wrongdoing while on the job which results in damage, injury, or death. The government denied Joylinda’s claim. Her attorney filed a lawsuit after the denial.
“I just feel like the VA protected him when I am the victim, and I am the one who should have been protected,” she said.
Alvin Peeples did not answer the I-TEAM’s calls, emails, or the door but the VA did respond to us.
“The safety of our veterans is our top priority. an investigation that included the VA police and VA Office of Inspector General occurred once hospital leadership was made aware of the complaint of inappropriate behavior in 2020.”
A document trail shows otherwise. The I-TEAM uncovered the VA knew about the allegations as early as 2018. They just didn’t do anything about it.
A return receipt shows the VA received Joylinda’s claim in April of 2018. A few months later, an attorney for the VA gave a copy of the complaint to risk management at Charlie Norwood. And in 2019, Joylinda’s attorney received this email from the VA’s attorney about the claim:
“Unfortunately, due to our group being severely understaffed the last two years, I have been unable to complete my investigation into this claim.”
In court documents, the VA states that on August 1, 2019:
“…confirmed there has been no fact-finding, investigation or information in Mr. Peeples employee file about the complaint.”
Let’s get back to the statement the VA sent the I-TEAM: “The involved employee no longer works for VA.”
The VA is correct. Peeple’s no longer works at Charlie Norwood. He retired in April of 2021. He left three years after Jolynda first alerted her doctor to the alleged assault, filed a claim, and a year after a review board recommended that he be removed not only from his position at Charlie Norwood but also from federal services.
“The fact he was able to retire and frankly just get away with this is wrong,” Campanero said. “This must change and they need to be held responsible.”
Jolynda is war-worn and weary from defending her country and feels as if her country failed to defend her. “It’s just too much for me right now I just can’t deal with it.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office is defending the VA in the lawsuit. The U.S. Attorney’s office filed a motion to dismiss the case in October. The federal judge has not yet made a ruling on the motion.
Copyright 2022 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.