Questions surround fired Polk County therapist with checkered past

POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) —  Questions remain as to how a behavioral therapist with a questionable past was able to work with children.

Jessica Lazzara, 42, is facing multiple charges, including felony molestation, following a session with two young girls in Polk County.

The former behavioral therapist was employed with Big Bear Behavioral Health in Maitland when she was sent to a Frostproof home as a trauma therapist for the girls, ages 11 and 13 and was their counselor for several months at the time of the alleged incident, according to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

When Lazzara came to the home for a weekly session in April, the 13-year-old would not get out of bed, according to deputies. In response, Lazzara allegedly pointed a small bow and arrow at the victim, and hit the teen with the arrow.

Later, the girls and their mother, 27, then went to the backyard and were talking with Lazzara when deputies say the therapist asked the 11-year-old girl if she wanted to be spanked. Lazzara proceeded to roll the child over, and stuck a lighter between her legs several times, according to Sheriff Judd.

Investigators say the accused spray painted the 11-year-old’s legs with black paint and then spray painted her mother’s crotch area.

“Mom was going along with this at the very beginning, because she thought this was some sort of extreme trust exercise,” Sheriff Grady Judd said.

The group moved to the front yard, where Sheriff Judd says Lazzara lifted her shirt and bra to expose herself, and then rubbed herself on the victims.

When Lazzara then threatened to kill everyone and herself, the victims locked themselves in the house and called 911.

“They knew their mental health counselor was in mental health crisis and locked themselves in the house,” Sheriff Judd said.

A responding deputy said Lazzara told him to shoot her before she was then taken into custody. She was then sent for a mental health evaluation.

Lazzara has been charged with lewd molestation, lewd and lascivious conduct, child abuse, battery and indecent exposure. She is being held in the Polk County Jail.

During a news conference on Tuesday, Sheriff Judd had serious questions for Lazzara’s former employer, Big Bear Behavioral Health.

According to Sheriff Judd, Lazzara was arrested in 2006 and 2010, for selling alcohol to a minor and DUI. She was Baker Acted for mental health issues in 2005 and 2016. Lazzara also told deputies she lost her children during a divorce proceeding because of her mental health issues.

“I don’t know if it’s her conduct that upsets me the most, or the fact that Big Bear put somebody with a history, in a home, counseling by herself,” said Sheriff Judd. “My question is, has Jessica lost it with any other children she’s been counseling? And how many people did Big Bear hire with these same issues?” he continued.

Despite phone calls, emails, and even showing up at Big Bear Behavioral Health in Maitland, no one would speak with 8 On Your Side about Lazzara.

State records show that Max Magnasco is the owner and founder of Big Bear Behavioral Health, but he wouldn’t comment.

Lazzara listed on her application her two previous criminal charges, yet somehow these are not disqualifying offenses when applying for a license, according to a Department of Health spokesperson.

“I’m almost embarrassed to sit here and say this. This is the mental health counselor. You follow what I’m saying?” Sheriff Grady Judd said.

8 On Your Side also asked the Department of Health if the owner of Big Bear Behavioral Health, or Lazzara would be investigated. A spokesperson said that has not yet been determined.

Big Bear released the following statement on Tuesday afternoon:

Big Bear was notified of the incident and took immediate action to address the concerns reported to us. Big Bear places great value on the confidentiality and safety of our clients and staff, and are dedicated to serving our community with caring, competent strength. We pride ourselves in working with clinicians of the highest caliber, and exceed all local, state and federal guidelines in qualifying our employees prior to hire.”

The center says they are cooperating with authorities during the investigation.

Sheriff Judd said the organization had not returned calls from investigators until Tuesday, after media showed up at their location.

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