Feature

The End of Innocence

The Children’s Center at Park Hill United Methodist Church has long served as a pillar of its community by providing childcare to thousands of neighborhood kids since 1980. But in August 2010, the center was hit with allegations of child sex abuse that could go down as one of the worst cases in state history. What many people don’t know: It wasn’t the first time.

March 2011

It wasn’t a typical habit of hers, but Jenny Meyer kept looking at the watch on her left wrist.

3:15 p.m.

3:27 p.m.

3:45 p.m.

She needed to pick up her oldest daughter, two-and-a-half-year-old Harper, from daycare at 4 p.m. Normally, Meyer would have considered walking the one-and-a-half miles to the Children’s Center at Park Hill United Methodist Church. Six blocks south, then 10 blocks east—the stroll would’ve taken her along Park Hill’s familiar leafy streets. Instead, Meyer grabbed the keys to her silver Subaru Outback. Quicker is better today, she thought. It was Harper’s second day at the Children’s Center. Meyer didn’t want to be late.

Meyer and her husband, Marc Brush, both 37, had kept Harper at home for the first two years of her life. Brush had been a stay-at-home dad, a job he relished. He knew what Harper liked to eat and which foods made her stomach hurt. He knew which clothes fit her best. He knew all the tricks to soothe her. He knew, and loved, that Harper saw him as her primary caregiver. But after learning that they had a second baby on the way, and with Harper turning two, Brush decided to return to his career as a journalist. That meant enrolling Harper in childcare.

Meyer and Brush thought they had done their due diligence: They looked at Montessori schools, chain daycares, and preschool-style programs. They were all fine—adequate, yet nothing special. But when the couple walked inside the Children’s Center, they noticed something different immediately. Kids were on the floor building teetering skyscrapers with blocks. The classrooms had built-in, colorfully painted wooden lofts for playing “fort” or for quietly looking at a book. A free-range pet rabbit named Petunia chewed on an old book. Big-box daycares felt like they could pass a white-glove test, but the Children’s Center had the casual, playful vibe for which Meyer and Brush had been searching. It felt like the epitome of childhood: whimsical, unstructured, imaginative. Harper could have fun here, they thought.

During her drive to the center that afternoon, Meyer was anxious. Like any parents, Meyer and Brush had worried that their little girl, who has sandy-brown hair and big chocolate eyes, would cry all day, have nightmares, or get sick from being around other kids. They’d done their best to ready themselves for whatever hurdles Harper might encounter away from home. Childcare was necessary for their family. They told themselves everything would be just fine.

But no amount of preparation could have equipped Meyer for the scene she witnessed at the Children’s Center on that early August afternoon. With shaky hands, two staff members were filling each student’s mailbox with a white flyer. As Meyer approached, a woman handed her a piece of paper. “Did you get one of these?” she asked. “We’ve had a tragedy here today.”

 

From the start, details were difficult to come by. The flyer parents had received from the Children’s Center was almost brutal in its brevity:

Dear Parents, We need to inform you about an incident that occurred yesterday in the Pre-K Classroom with a summer-hire Pre-K aide and two Pre-K students. An allegation of sexual abuse has been made against this aide and an arrest warrant has been issued. As of this morning this aide is no longer on the premises. We will keep you informed as we know more.…We are heartsick that this alleged incident has occurred in our center and to our families.

Parents, and the rest of Denver, were left to glean what they could from news reports, newspaper headlines, the arrest affidavit, and neighborhood chitchat. The Children’s Center offered what little it knew to its families, but communication was sporadic. A Google message board was set up for Children’s Center staff and families to correspond in a secure environment, but few particulars emerged. The Denver Police Department was quiet because children were involved and the investigation was ongoing. The only thing that seemed certain was that a 19-year-old teacher’s aide named Benjamin Janicki had been arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting at least two young children during the nine weeks he was employed by the center. For parents like Marc Brush, the dearth of information was unacceptable.

Brush put on his reporter’s cap: He called the lead DPD detective on the case, read through newspaper articles, posted sometimes-lengthy monologues on the message board, and thumbed through what little paperwork he could find. What he learned, particularly details in a report released by the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) on August 6, made him rethink how much he truly wanted to know.

The number 13 seemed improbably high. After all, the white flyer from the center had said only two children had allegedly been abused. There were only 13 girls enrolled in the pre-K classroom, where the abuse had allegedly taken place. The classroom had two teachers, two teacher’s aides, and about 25 children total. How could Janicki find the opportunity to abuse that many little girls? Did he molest them all? Was it only the girls? Yet there it was in black and white—“as many as 13 children”—in a report generated by the CDHS just two days after the ponytailed, goateed teenager had been arrested. The report went on to say that “Janicki admitted to digitally and orally penetrating two children.”

Of those alleged victims, a four-year-old’s bold statement to her mother may have ultimately stopped Janicki from victimizing more children at the center. According to the police affidavit and application for arrest warrant, on August 3, 2010, a four-year-old girl told her mother that “Ben” had licked and tickled her genitals. Her parents called the Denver Police. The following day, a forensic interviewer at the Denver Children’s Advocacy Center questioned the girl, and she repeated her allegations. The interviewer showed the girl an anatomically accurate drawing of a female body and asked the girl to mark where her teacher touched her. With a crayon, the girl drew a circle around the woman’s vagina.

A spontaneous disclosure from a child is a relatively rare occurrence. Child sexual abuse is not. According to the most recent statistics from the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, 135,300 children were sexually abused in the United States in 2005–2006. Although more than 135,000 accounts sounds like a large number, child abuse experts believe that unreported cases far exceed those statistics: About one in three girls, and one in seven boys, will be sexually abused by age 18. But because in more than 85 percent of these cases children know their abuser, kids are often afraid to tell anyone what’s happening. Experts estimate that this fear allows approximately two-thirds of child sexual abuse cases to go unreported.

Preventing child sexual abuse is just as difficult as convincing a child it’s OK to tell someone what’s happened to him or her. Child molesters do not wear signs that read Hello, I’m a pedophile. In fact, they work diligently to avert suspicion. “I liked Ben,” longtime Children’s Center teacher Peter McInerney says. “He seemed willing and eager to help. He seemed like he genuinely liked kids. I thought he was a little quiet, a bit hard to get to know, shy, a withdrawn teenager. But I thought we had a beautiful classroom.”

Instead, what they may have had was a person who saw chinks in the Children’s Center’s armor—and exploited them. What parents had seen as a laid-back atmosphere, a pedophile could have seen as an organization with lax rules. What anyone might have seen as a fun trip to the pool, a pedophile could have seen as an easy way to “help” a child undress and put on a swimsuit. What a teacher might’ve seen as a thoughtful offer to soothe a fussy kid at nap time, a pedophile could have seen as a chance to lie down next to the child. What kids had seen as a quiet place to read a book alone, a pedophile could have seen as a clandestine place to operate.

 

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