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

The Park Hill United Methodist Church, situated on a corner lot at the intersection of East Montview Boulevard and Forest Street, has buttercream walls, tile roofing, and Mission-style architecture that’s elegant and inviting. Parts of the building are old—the cornerstone of the church was laid in 1924—and the interior has claustrophobic hallways, creaky staircases, and fluorescent lighting. Like many religious edifices, it has a serene aura that floats alongside an air of manufactured friendliness.

There is nothing artificial—or peaceful—about the Children’s Center. Housed in a connected but clearly demarcated wing of the church, the center breathes life into what might otherwise be an empty building each weekday. The idea for the center was born 35 years ago when a small group of Park Hill United Methodist Church members—a “social-concerns committee”—recognized a growing need for childcare in the neighborhood. The committee, along with the church’s associate pastor at the time, Dean Woodward, wanted to create a reasonably priced childcare center that was a service component of the church but not an evangelical tool. Anyone in the community, regardless of religion or cultural background, would be able to attend the center.

The idea did not initially garner support from the congregation. It was 1976—a time when a mother working outside of the home was still controversial. “Many people in the church looked at it as aiding and abetting women going to work,” Woodward says today. “They thought it would encourage the disintegration of the family.”

But the committee pressed on and gathered support where it could. “The simple fact was that both dads and moms were having to work,” Woodward says. It took nearly four years of planning, meetings with the city council, forming a governing board, and determining how the center would be aligned with, but distinct from, the church before the not-for-profit Children’s Center finally opened in 1980.

The center flourished. Each year, hundreds of kids bounced through seven classrooms, attending full-time childcare, preschool, and after-school childcare programs. Teachers Peter McInerney, Rich Condon, and Marsha Woodward (Dean’s wife) were hired during the center’s early years—and never left. Neighborhood residents who attended the Children’s Center when they were young grew up to send their own kids to the center. Over the years, the building at the corner of Montview and Forest became a second home for the working parents of Park Hill, and the teachers there became extended family.

Terry Smith says she remembers her time at the center vividly. In an old class photo, she’s the four-year-old blonde in the front row. A smiling, dark-haired Peter McInerney stands to her right. Today Smith lives in Park Hill, and has two sons of her own: Patrick, now 6, attended the center for a time, and Smith is considering sending her younger son there again this summer. “This place has been much more than a daycare to me,” Smith says. “I remember climbing all over Peter as a kid. He was so much fun. I couldn’t wait for Patrick to start there.”

The Children’s Center had set up its place in the hearts of its Park Hill neighbors, and in some years the center pulled in close to $1 million in revenue. Families were known to half-joke that they wished they had more kids just so they could send them to the Children’s Center. And except for a few split lips, a chipped tooth here and there, and the rare broken bone, the staff seemed to care for its children with enough compassion and tenderness that parents felt secure leaving their kids there.