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Lawsuit alleges improper conduct by Bethlehem treatment center’s director and her husband

Special to the Union Leader

March 17. 2014 6:35PM

HAVERHILL — The director of a residential mental health treatment home in Bethlehem which closed abruptly last month is, along with her husband, being sued by the parents of a Virginia woman who claim the director’s husband tried to initiate a romantic relationship with their daughter, who was receiving treatment at Sovereign Journey.

The Grafton County Superior Court lawsuit was filed against psychologist Karen Fitzhugh and her husband, Mark Fitzhugh, of Peacham, Vt., and their treatment center, which was in a large and prominent Victorian home on Main Street in Bethlehem.

The family claims that in-person and text messages from Mark Fitzhugh to their 19-year-old daughter started last summer and steadily became more “inappropriate and personal” and “sexually suggestive and flirtatious.”

They allege that on one occasion he drove their daughter away from the facility in a car.

When word of Mark Fitzhugh’s alleged behavior reached families of the women between the ages of 18 and 24 who lived in the group home and were being treated there, most pulled clients out of Sovereign Journey and stopped paying the approximately $10,000 per month fees for each woman, effectively killing the business, according to court documents.

Mark Fitzhugh is not a licensed clinician, according to the suit, and was working at the facility in information technology.

Nevertheless, when the plaintiff in the case was “having a difficult day” last summer, Karen Fitzhugh suggested she “go over and talk with her husband, Mark Fitzhugh,” the plaintiffs say in the lawsuit.

Things deteriorated from there for the woman, who suffered a setback in her condition in succeeding weeks as a result of Mark Fitzhugh’s behavior, her family alleges.

Designed to treat young women suffering from emotional disorders that included anxiety, trauma, relationship difficulties and school failure, Sovereign Journey was a $1.2 million federal project that benefited from Housing and Urban Development community block grant money.

In addition to helping the 13 clients who lived there at a time for nine to 12 months each, it was intended to provide at least 14 jobs for low- to moderate-income residents of the economically strapped North Country in the Bethlehem area when it opened in February 2012.

The state of New Hampshire also kicked in an additional $360,000 low-cost loan to help the treatment facility get started. That loan came through the state’s Community Development Finance Authority.

The civil action filed by plaintiffs’ attorney Jon Strasburger of Manchester claims negligence and breach of contract, and seeks unspecified damages for the teenager and her family.

A response filed on behalf of the Fitzhughs by Gloucester, Mass., attorney Christopher Driscoll denies the main points claimed against them.

Driscoll, in a telephone interview Monday, said neither he nor the Fitzhughs would comment on the case, including a statement in his written response to the suit that acknowledges nearly all families who had women in Sovereign Journey’s programs had pulled them out in recent months.

Strasburger did not return a message Monday seeking comment, including on a statement in the lawsuit he filed that says a psychiatrist treating residents at Sovereign Journey reported the allegations against Mark Fitzhugh to the state, which sparked an investigation.

Rachel Lakin of New Hampshire Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Adult and Elderly Services did not return a message Monday.

A spokeswoman at HUD’s Boston office was working late Monday to get information on the large Sovereign Journey grant.

Meanwhile, regarding the state portion of the funding, Kevin Flynn, New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority’s communications director, said Monday, despite Sovereign Journey’s apparent business failure, Karen Fitzhugh had fulfilled her obligation to create the jobs she promised, and CDFA has completed its dealings with her facility.

“We’re disappointed that this business did not succeed, and obviously with the loss of those jobs. We hoped it would give an economic boost to Bethlehem,” Flynn said.

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