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.
Shrieks of delight began wafting through the Children’s Center when it reopened in mid-September of last year. Of the 115 or so kids who had been enrolled at the center before its closure, 85 came back immediately. By mid-December enrollment was at 113. Along with monthly visits from the CDHS, the center has been actively working on improving safety. And, according to Berkower, that’s what’s important. “Park Hill is not the only school this has happened to,” she says. “All over this city it happens.” But not everyone was convinced the center could change. “We had about 10 or so families that simply said they could never trust us again,” Woodward says.
Although the neighborhood has been mostly supportive, the scandal has put the once-progressive, once-thriving 31-year-old institution in a precarious position. Even with donations from the community and tuition from the 113 children who are now enrolled, the Children’s Center has financial question marks that leave open the possibility of closure. And although no civil suits have been filed, there are whispers in the community that some families are considering legal action against the center. “We had no real revenue for the months of August and September,” says Rich Condon, who was the center’s interim director from August 2010 to early January 2011. “But we still had to pay staff, provide refunds, pay rent, and make improvements to the building that the state required. Things are improving, but we still have some questions financially.”
Other questions linger as well. Peter McInerney wonders how long it will be before he feels normal again. Dressed in mismatched soccer socks and wearing a T-shirt that has a construction paper Batman symbol taped to the chest (“It’s for ‘B’ week,” he says), McInerney puts a hand on his forehead and sighs. “The hardest part is that I know that kids and parents have been hurt,” he says. “And now it freaks me out that I don’t have a good read on people.”
Many parents still do trust the center and teachers like McInerney. “Peter was the main reason why we wanted to send our kids there,” Gretchen Peters says. “He’s an amazingly creative guy. I don’t want this to take the spirit out of the place.” Others are grateful that if something like this was going to happen, that they had chosen a neighborhood-based childcare center. “If this happened at a corporate daycare,” says Christy Bouchard, “I would have been on an island. The community here gathered together and is finding a way forward.”
In early January, the center hired a new director, Sherri Seirmarco, who Condon believes will be able to continue the improvements he, Woodward (who stepped down from the board in late November), Beth Hendrix, and the staff have been making since August. “There is an awareness here now that there wasn’t before Ben,” Condon says. “We’re aware of all the state regulations. We’re aware of where everyone is at all times. That’s the lesson we’ve learned.”
Marc Brush and Jenny Meyer say they have learned lessons as well. Through Brush’s research, the couple ultimately came to the conclusion that it was unlikely Harper had been harmed. They decided to send her back to the Children’s Center after it reopened, and they are considering sending their youngest daughter there when the time comes. “I’m 37 years old,” Brush says, “but this made me grow up. It’s an ugly truth, but you can’t protect your kids all the time. You can try to prevent bad things but you can’t stop them. Life is what it is, not what you want it to be.”
Lindsey B. Koehler is the managing editor of 5280. E-mail her at [email protected].