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"I just didn't think I could have made a morally different decision," Michelle Lewis said Friday of her decision to call police about a client at Three Rivers Mental Health Solutions when she suspected potential child abuse. Lewis was fired for blowing the whistle.

A 23-year-old Missoula woman earning $10.50 an hour said she did what anyone would have done when suspecting potential child abuse.

Michelle Lewis called police.

"I just didn't think I could have made a morally different decision," Lewis said.

That's despite the fact, she said, that her supervisors at Three Rivers Mental Health Solutions warned she'd lose her job if she made the report about one of the counseling center's clients.

Police charged that client, John Gribble, with sexually abusing a child.

And Three Rivers fired Michelle Lewis.

As has become painfully clear with the revelations about an apparent cover-up of child sex abuse allegations against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, Lewis was wrong in assuming her sense of duty was universal.

Penn State wasn't on the national radar when Lewis called Missoula police on Oct. 17. But the paperwork outlining the child pornography accusations against Gribble was filed Nov. 7, two days after the news about Sandusky broke.

Lewis said she hasn't been paying much attention as Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and president Glenn Schultz resigned, and then famed coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were fired. On Friday, Penn State placed assistant coach Mike McQueary - who told Paterno but not police that he saw Sandusky raping a young boy - on administrative leave.

Lewis, meanwhile, has been busy looking for work to replace the only job she'd held since graduating from the University of Montana.

She was a member of Three Rivers' rehabilitation and support staff, helping clients with tasks such as shopping and going to doctors' appointments. Sometimes, she said, she went to their homes for "socialization" - basically, keeping them company.

"A lot of the clients are depressed" and risk becoming too isolated, she said.

Gribble was one of those clients.

***

In an interview Friday, Lewis reiterated the account outlined in the affidavit of probable cause against Gribble, filed by Deputy Missoula County Attorney Jason Marks.

She was at Gribble's house one day when he told her he wanted to show her something on his computer, which is hooked up to a 52-inch TV screen. Even from her seat across the living room, she said, she could read the words in his browser window as he clicked through it, looking for a previous site.

She read "female child nude" and "preteen nude girls by themselves."

"I wrote it down real quick," she said. "I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do. I'm not a counselor. I brought it back to the owners of Three Rivers."

But, she said, "they just told me that it wasn't my place to report it."

Earlier this week, Three Rivers administrator Shea Hennelly said the incident, along with other concerns about Gribble reported by Lewis, did not meet the criteria mandating a police report. Hennelly did not respond to a message from the Missoulian on Friday.

But Lewis said Gribble's behavior "has been an issue for a while," with other employees.

Melissa Worthan of Missoula, who worked as a personal care assistant for Summit Independent Living Center, said that company had dropped Gribble as a client after she and other workers complained about him two years ago.

"He would talk about how he enjoyed and got excited to spank little girls across his knees when they were naked," she said.

Worthan said she took her concerns both to supervisors at Summit, and to the Missoula County Sheriff's Office, but that at the time there was no evidence that Gribble had contact with children. The sheriff's office confirmed that Worthan had contacted them.

Summit immediately dropped Gribble as a client, she said.

Missoula police executing a search warrant at Gribble's home last month found a DVD with photos of children, "some prepubescent in a state of undress," according to the charging documents. The charge against him of sexually abusing a child specifies that he possessed child pornography.

Montana law requires certain professionals and officials to report actual or suspected abuse or neglect of a child.

When Lewis cared for Gribble, he told her that he was baby-sitting for two single mothers, each of whom had young daughters. "Lewis feels very apprehensive about this family's safety, which is one of the reasons she is telling authorities about Gribble," the affidavit said.

***

Hennelly, the Three Rivers administrator, said that while Three Rivers had warned another mother about Gribble in the past, Lewis couldn't supply the names of the families for whom he recently baby-sat.

Hennelly said Three Rivers requires five criteria before breaking patient confidentiality - involvement of a client, communication to a professional, a threat to a child's safety, an identifiable third party, and the apparent intent and ability to harm a child. In Gribble's case, "we ultimately determined we shouldn't do it," he said earlier this week.

Hennelly said Lewis' report to police was among several reasons she was fired.

Lewis said Friday that was the only reason she was given.

She reported Gribble to police on a Monday and was called in to Three Rivers the following Sunday, when she was fired, she said. She said she requested notification in writing and received a one-sentence letter saying she'd been terminated for violating company policy.

Chris Nygren of Milodragovich, Dale, Steinbrenner & Nygren said he's exploring legal action on Lewis' behalf.

Meanwhile, said Lewis, she's living off her last paycheck and the generosity of "a very supportive boyfriend and family."

After the Missoulian reported the charges against Gribble, she began to hear from friends who'd read the news on various websites around the country. Meanwhile, a stream of emails, telephone calls and online comments to the Missoulian, also from around the country, repeatedly termed Lewis a hero.

She rejects the label.

"If I were in that same situation as those kids, I'd appreciate it if somebody would have talked about it," she said.

Paterno and company didn't.

But Michelle Lewis did.

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com or on CopsAndCourts.com.

 

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