A woman who lost her job when the Rock County Human Services Department switched contractors for its Birth to 3 program last year is suing the county, alleging officials defamed her at a public meeting.

Theresa “Terri” Wixom alleges Human Services Director Kate Luster, Deputy Director Tera O’Connor and Division Manager Greg Winkler made the comments at a meeting of the Human Services Board last August when the department was asking the board to switch contractors for the Birth to 3 program.

The program, which helps children younger than 3 with developmental disabilities, was run for decades by CESA 2. Last year, the department put out a request for proposals to run the service, and CESA 2 lost the contract to United Cerebral Palsy of Dane County.

The lawsuit alleges that at the Aug. 14 meeting:

  • Luster said that under Wixom’s leadership, the CESA-run program had a history of being over budget.

The lawsuit alleges the program had been over budget only twice under Wixom’s “stewardship” because of circumstances out of her control.

Wixom told The Gazette the program exceeded its budget in 2018 because three employees took maternity leave, and fill-ins had to be hired. The lawsuit alleges Luster worked with Wixom for only two years and did not know about previous budgets.

  • O’Connor said Wixom caused families undue stress and was difficult to work with.

Wixom said there is no evidence of that happening.

  • Winkler said Wixom was difficult to work with.

Wixom said department officials repeatedly tried to find fault with the program, but she proved them wrong each time.

The minutes indicate Winkler said CESA 2 was “automatically taking a defensive stance” and “consistently focused on rote compliance rather than authentically embracing evidence-based practice.”

Wixom said she has a recording from the Aug. 14 meeting.

The lawsuit claims the statements were false and damaged Wixom’s reputation. It claims the three officials withheld the decision to award the contract to United Cerebral Palsy until after a public hearing in July, “so that Ms. Wixom was not able to address the Rock County Human Services Board at the annual public hearing, a decision that effectively terminated Ms. Wixom’s employment.”

Wixom, of Evansville, says she worked for the CESA 2 program for nearly 20 years. She has not gotten a new job since United Cerebral Palsy took over.

“I pursued this because my heart and soul is in Birth to 3, and I believed in my program and the staff that worked for me, and the whole situation is very unfortunate, and I got the brunt of it,” Wixom said.

Her lawsuit claims three agencies submitted proposals to run Birth to 3, and the Human Services Department “had its thumb on the scale, secretly engaging in direct talks with at least two of the applicants about its ability to provide services,” excluding CESA 2.

The lawsuit does not specify a dollar amount but states Wixom lost at least two years of wages and benefits and suffered emotional distress.

Rock County Corporation Counsel Richard Greenlee said officials will not comment on the pending lawsuit.

Minutes from the Aug. 14 meeting state Luster said “… it was extremely unfortunate that the confidence in the Department has been eroded by misinformation.”

Luster also “addressed a myth that the problems between CESA 2 and the county are about a person. This isn’t about a person. This is a challenge in a relationship that goes beyond any one person,” the minutes state.

The minutes say Winkler spoke about difficulties in relations between the department and CESA 2, saying “CESA 2 is terrifying families, spreading thoughts that they will not have services.”

The minutes say O’Connor cited “difficulties in collaboration with CESA 2.”

After those comments and others, the board then voted unanimously to approve the contract with United Cerebral Palsy.

Wixom told The Gazette she and at least one other CESA 2 employee could not get interviews with United Cerebral Palsy.

Luster is quoted in the minutes as saying United Cerebral Palsy wanted to hire CESA 2 staff, but Wixom says Luster promised all would get interviews.

Wixom said she worked hard to help the new agency take over the program during the transition.

“I didn’t want to see that program not succeed,” Wixom said