On Friday, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) announced plans to hire an outside counsel, Bond, Shoeneck & King, to investigate allegations made against the longtime operator of the Roosevelt Island Youth Program (RIYP), Charles DeFino.
The announcement came one day after the corporation’s January
Board of Directors meeting, during which they had been expected to vote on whether to enter into a contract with RIYP to run the Island’s Youth Center for the next three years. That motion was tabled by Board Chair Alejandro Valella after hearing 45 minutes of public testimony about the organization.
“Prompted by statements made at last night’s Board meeting and emails received from the public, RIOC is hiring outside counsel to investigate,” wrote RIOC President Susan Rosenthal. “We expect this to be completed in advance of the next Board meeting on March 1.”
RIOC would not comment on the specific allegations they are investigating or whether all of the allegations have previously been made public. Former RIYP employee, Julia Abdurahman, shared a complaint she filed with the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) regarding DeFino’s conduct around children. Other former employees have told The WIRE they were concerned enough to have done the same.
Several parents came forward at the Thursday night meeting to share alarming experiences they said they’d had with DeFino and the program he runs.
Rachel Dowling, whose son attended RIYP’s Beacon program in the past, said not only did her son experience three head injuries under RIYP’s watch, but that the staff’s and leadership’s feelings about her complaints were taken out on her son.
“My efforts to advocate for my son were met with antagonism and spite, hostility, neglect, the flagrant absence of professionalism, and they made no effort to conceal their hostility,” she told Board members. “Having worked as a teacher in the private and public sector, I would never take my feelings about the parent out on the child.”
Dowling also says that, when she spoke up about her concerns with the program, RIYP retaliated by sharing private information about her and her son with members of the community, and on social media, violating confidentiality laws.
Susy Del Campo Perea, a parent to two young daughters, accused DeFino of making sexual comments to her while she pushed her daughters in a double stroller. “My husband was behind me carrying the groceries. It stopped right there because my husband didn’t like it.” She said, “Now that my kids are of the age to attend the program, I could never leave my girls there. What could I expect if they are inside with that person?”
Former RIYP assistant director, Aikaterini Drougos, however, offered compliments for her prior boss. “Throughout the time I have known Mr. DeFino, I have heard the complaints, but never the appreciation,” she said. She blamed the negative reports on competing programs which she said had been popping up on the Island, solely for the purpose of challenging the youth program. “I have seen Roosevelt Island’s once tight-knit community split into three.”
Thomas Howlin, known to many Island parents and kids as Coach Tommy, travels from the Bronx every Saturday to coach the youngest kids in soccer, basketball, and baseball, depending on the season. He described DeFino as having “a heart of gold,” but acknowledged that the executive director could at times seem abrasive. “He’s like the sandpaper you need to smooth a piece of wood,” he told the Board.
RIYP treasurer, Steven Kaufman, submitted a statement on behalf of the RIYP board of directors, Meera Tandon, Maureen Santella, Jimmie Won, Kwasi Long, Dave Evans, and John Weatherhead, which stated, “Executive Director Charlie DeFino has the full support of the RI Youth Program’s Board of Directors and we are confident that RIOC’s investigation will conclude that the allegations made are without merit.”