Longtime Native Health Staffer out after Sex Abuse Allegations Surface
By Antonia Noori Farzan
Phoenix New Times
October 2, 2017
Dennis Huff, the longtime head of behavioral health services at Native Health of Phoenix — which primarily serves the urban Native American community — has left the organization amid allegations of sexual abuse of students at St. Catherine's Indian School in Santa Fe during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Last month, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe included a person named Dennis Huff on a list of 74 clergy members who had been "credibly accused of sexual misconduct over the last several decades," according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.
On Tuesday, September 26, when Phoenix New Times first contacted Native Health to ask about the accusations, Huff was identified on the nonprofit community health center's website as a member of the leadership team, with the title of behavioral health services administrator.
Two days later, Huff was no longer listed on the website. Communications coordinator Susan Levy wrote in an email, "Regarding your inquiry, Dennis Huff is no longer employed at Native Health. Our policy is not to release any information regarding current and former employees, except dates of employment."
On Friday afternoon, Walter Murillo, Native Health's CEO, shared the following statement:
Dennis Huff was hired by NATIVE HEALTH in 1992, and served as an exemplary member of our administrative staff. Recently, NATIVE HEALTH received an anonymous letter with allegations against Mr. Huff involving events said to have allegedly occurred prior to his employment with our organization. NATIVE HEALTH requires all employees to pass a rigorous background check and we are not aware of any complaints during Mr. Huff’s employment, nor are there any disciplinary actions reported by the State of Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners. Mr. Huff was required to maintain a criminal background check card, which was monitored and maintained by the Arizona Department of Public Safety, for the length of his employment with us. Upon learning of the allegations against him, NATIVE HEALTH initiated an internal process to determine the best course of action, culminating in Mr. Huff’s decision to resign. During that time, Mr. Huff continued to serve in an administrative role only, with no direct client contact. NATIVE HEALTH regularly reviews our policies, procedures, and practices to ensure that we remain true to our mission providing holistic, patient-centered, culturally sensitive health and wellness services to all people.
In 2014, a lawsuit filed in New Mexico district court alleged that Huff, then a Franciscan monk at the now-defunct St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, had sexually abused a 15-year-old boy living in the school's dorms back in 1976. After a settlement conference, the case was dismissed in February at the plaintiff's request.
In January 2016, a little over a year after the lawsuit was filed, Louie Toya identified himself as the "John Doe" in the case. Toya, a member of Jemez Pueblo, told the Albuquerque Journal that he had run away from the school after the alleged rape occurred and gone on to struggle with alcoholism for most of his life.
According to the complaint, Toya also suffers from "delayed PTSD symptoms, embarrassment, humiliation, destruction and loss of faith, loss of sexual capacity and intimacy, loss of self-esteem, depression, anger issues, nightmares, and other damages" as a result of the abuse.
Toya's attorney, Levi Monagle, whose firm has filed more than 70 lawsuits against priests from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, couldn't confirm that the Dennis Huff named in the lawsuit was the same individual formerly employed by Native Health.
"The Dennis Huff in our case did spend time in Arizona in various capacities," he acknowledged. "If it is the same person, I find it very troubling."
Eric Morrow, who represented Huff in the lawsuit, declined to comment on whether his client had relocated to the Phoenix area. Directory phone numbers listed for Huff were either out of date or not in service.
However, a 1997 article in the Albuquerque Journal, archived on a website documenting sexual abuse in the Catholic church, noted that Huff had left the order and was believed to be living in Mesa. At the time, Huff had just been accused of sexually abusing another former student, who had been at the school between 1980 and 1983. (The former student submitted a complaint to local police, but Phoenix New Times was unable to locate any records suggesting that charges were ever filed in court.)
The LinkedIn page for Dennis Huff, Native Health's former behavior health director, states that he worked as the Social Services Director for the Fort McDowell Indian Community between 1986 and 1992, before getting hired at Native Health. It doesn't list any positions that he held prior to 1986.
And an official bio provided for the 2015 Arizona Health Equity Conference notes, "Mr. Huff, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, began his 41 years of work among the Native American community in 1974 including both on and off reservation," but doesn't provide any details about where he worked during the early years of his career.
Nonetheless, word that he might be implicated in a sex abuse scandal got out.
In mid-August, a behavioral health professional — who is a member of the Native American community, and a survivor of sexual abuse — contacted Native Health to express concerns.
In an anonymous letter sent to the CEO and other top officials, and later shared with Phoenix New Times, the individual (who asked not to be named in this story) wrote:
"I feel it is completely inappropriate, disrespectful, and disheartening that the Native American Community Health Center would employ someone like Mr. Huff in a department that serves hundreds of people in our community who have suffered through traumatic experiences similar to acts allegedly committed by Mr. Huff against Mr. Toya. As a community, we are still dealing with the residual effects of historical trauma brought on by people just like Mr. Huff who allegedly used his religious position to take advantage of Native American boys whose lives continue to be impacted today."
On Friday, three days after New Times first asked about the allegations, COO Patricia Patron sent an email notifying all staff members about Huff's departure. It reads in part:
"I wanted to inform you that Dennis Huff has decided to retire from Native Health. We are very grateful for all the contributions Dennis made to Native Health and our behavioral health program during his tenure. We wish him the best in this new chapter in his life."
A follow up email requested that staff not talk to the media about Huff's departure.
Upon being informed by New Times that Huff was no longer employed by the organization, the author of the anonymous letter said that the news prompted a mixture of emotions.
"Relief is the biggest one," the individual said. "I'm very disappointed by how they responded, but now it's over."
Native Health should issue a formal apology to clients, they added.
"Don't just sweep it under the rug like everyone else has — acknowledge it and move on."