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

 

Two days after a judge signed an arrest warrant for Benjamin Janicki, the Colorado Department of Human Services suspended the Children’s Center’s license to operate. When an allegation of child sexual abuse occurs in a daycare in Denver, the CDHS reserves the right to close the center while it investigates. In the case of the Children’s Center, the CDHS cited a bevy of major supervision-related infractions in its investigation, including teachers not actively supervising kids on the playground; staff not supervising children walking to and from the playground; and staff members lying down with children on the floor and in the lofts during nap time with their backs turned from the other children. The most conspicuous violation was that the center had been allowing children to be alone with teacher’s aides, like Benjamin Janicki. “If children are assaulted at a childcare center, the question becomes, ‘Who is watching them?’ ” says Terry Santi, licensing administrator for the CDHS Division of Childcare. “We found significant lapses in supervision that made the decision to suspend the Children’s Center’s license a necessity.”

Not everyone agreed with that decision. When the CDHS shuttered the center, more than 125 families found themselves without childcare. Parents who had kids enrolled at the center were frantic. And they were upset that, in their view, the CDHS took the sexual-abuse situation as an opportunity to persecute the center for a variety of non-supervision-related infractions—things like one too few sinks and not enough toilets, an 18-year-old piece of playground equipment that was all of a sudden too close to a wall, a cabinet that wasn’t secured. The list of regulations the center was in violation of was lengthy. There were repeat violations from previous state inspections, which presumably had either not been remedied or had reoccurred since the initial report. Yet parents wanted the center to open—and quickly. “The closing was traumatic on different levels,” says Gretchen Peters, 41, a Park Hill resident who has a child attending the center. “It caused tremendous stress even for families whose kids were nowhere near Ben Janicki. I was comfortable with it being a work in progress.”

Parents and staff may have been upset, but Dean Woodward—no longer a pastor at the church but a co-chair of the Children’s Center’s board from early 2008 through November 2010—believed the state was justified. “Over the past handful of years, there was not enough oversight of the center,” he says. “The church was not as strong a supporter as it could have been. It was a benign neglect—and unintentional. Things looked good on the surface but there were issues lurking below.”

Over the past 10 years the center had, according to Woodward, slipped into a state of sloppiness, a culture he says was engendered by the center’s longtime director, Candis Robinson. Robinson wasn’t completing paperwork accurately or promptly, Woodward says. Her recordkeeping was haphazard. She often hired staff based on familiarity with the applicant rather than on his or her merits. Parents weren’t happy with what many said were her obvious organizational weaknesses. Above all, she hadn’t been ensuring that the center was meeting state requirements, such as not allowing teacher’s aides to be alone with children. “I don’t think it was negligent supervision by the teachers,” Woodward says. “It was the administration. No one was called to account for the supervision issues or any other issues the state may have pointed out.”

After the allegations of sexual abuse in early August, Robinson resigned. She declined to be interviewed for this article, but provided 5280 with the following statement: “I love the Children’s Center. I love the staff and the parents. The situation there changed my life in ways people can’t imagine. I hope everyone—especially the children who may have been hurt—recover from this unfortunate situation.” In Robinson’s absence, Woodward took the position of interim executive. It was his mission to get the Children’s Center in compliance with the state. He worked long hours for more than three months to do so. He implemented monthly staff meetings, set up a walkie-talkie system, and got the center’s paperwork in order. He made the unpopular decision to reassign the staff. He organized sexual abuse prevention workshops, which teachers and aides were required to attend.

Woodward was not alone in his struggle to right the center. Longtime teacher Rich Condon took on the job of interim director, running the day-to-day operations of the center. Other board members, like co-chair Beth Hendrix, stepped in to help with the pile of paperwork from the CDHS and helped communicate with families. While the center was closed, parents and staff secured cabinets to walls, installed convex mirrors to help with line-of-sight issues, painted, covered electrical outlets, and reconfigured furniture. “I have to say that it’s almost physically and financially impossible to do everything the state asks,” Woodward says, “but it is now our policy that nothing is impossible.”

The Colorado Department of Human Services granted the center a probationary license to operate on September 9, 2010. “We feel that the Children’s Center has responded well,” says Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the CDHS. “It has gone to great lengths to instill confidence.”

The same thing can’t be said of the agencies charged with monitoring cases of child sexual abuse in institutional settings. When asked about any previous sexual abuse issues at the Children’s Center, Liz McDonough, Terry Santi, and licensing supervisor Sharon Nichols said they weren’t aware of any. The CDHS website purports to give the public access to a center’s full licensing history, but it doesn’t list the Martin Rodriguez-McDonald incidents, which became public information in 2000. When later alerted to the fact that these incidents did take place, McDonough was surprised. She double-checked her records, only to confirm that the CDHS had no knowledge of the events. There is a simple, albeit disconcerting, explanation for why CDHS had no record of this particular case: No one told the agency.

Although new policies and technology upgrades today allow for a more integrated relationship and better communication among child welfare departments, in 2000, when the Martin Rodriguez-McDonald incidents surfaced, there were sizeable gaps in the way information was shared between agencies.

The Colorado Department of Human Services Division of Childcare is the agency that inspects, regulates, and licenses childcare centers; however, a decade ago, that department was third in line to receive any information about allegations of child sexual abuse behind the Denver Police Department and Denver Human Services.

If either of those departments received information, but declared the allegations to be unfounded or inconclusive, the CDHS Division of Childcare would likely not have been notified—ever. Because DHS did not notify the CDHS, the CDHS would not have investigated the Children’s Center after the Rodriguez-McDonald case came to light—an investigation that could have turned up some of the supervision-related issues that are at the center of the Benjamin Janicki case today.

The scary result of the missing link in the information chain is that parents researching potential childcare options—parents, for example, like Jenny Meyer and Marc Brush—would have no way of knowing about this event in the Children’s Center’s history either.

Perhaps more disturbing than the fact that the CDHS has no record of the abuse that took place at the Children’s Center years ago is that the CDHS does not collect aggregate data on the frequency of child sexual abuse in the centers it regulates. The CDHS cannot confirm how often these situations arise, except to say that they are “unusual” and “rare.” But according to national statistics, 5.5 out of 10,000 kids enrolled in daycare are sexually abused each year. If those estimates are accurate, each year in Colorado nearly 140 children are molested while their parents are at work, at the gym, or at the grocery store.

When asked if child sex abuse can happen even when every state regulation is followed, McDonough replied: “If children are properly supervised, no, this can’t happen.” That statement ignores a giant loophole in the current regulations: Although teacher’s aides like Janicki are not allowed to be alone with children according to state regulations, teachers are. Teachers like Martin Rodriguez-McDonald.

 

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