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.
It wasn’t a typical habit of hers, but Jenny Meyer kept looking at the watch on her left wrist.
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.
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.
There are four inches of slushy snow on the ground outside, but inside the warm pre-K classroom 14 four- and five-year-olds are sitting in a tight clump at Peter McInerney’s feet, their faces looking upward reverently. Today is Pajama Day: There are Buzz Lightyear pajamas, Spider-Man pajamas, and even a little girl dressed in what appears to be a Cinderella costume. The 58-year-old childcare instructor, who is legendary in the neighborhood for not only his love of kids but also for his signature mismatched knee-high socks, fits right in with a pair of green flannel pajama pants. In his arms, he holds Superman, the four-year-old version. Only this superhero has had a rough morning, and tears stream down his cheeks. “Everyone, please listen,” McInerney says, his face showing concern. “Superman here has hurt his wrist. You can’t see it, but it’s right here and it’s still tender. Let’s be gentle, OK?”
For 30 years, McInerney himself has been the Superman of the Children’s Center. Parents have enrolled their children at the center specifically because of him—they want their kids to experience his special brand of magic. McInerney has that intangible something all great teachers have, and he’s helped raise thousands of kids, teaching them to say please and thank you, feigning surprise and wonder each time a child does something silly or new, and putting together puzzle after puzzle after puzzle. When he reads aloud, he makes funny faces and uses different voices. He hands out hugs and kisses and lets kids climb on him like he’s a human jungle gym. He is unfailingly patient, even when a child melts down over an empty cup of Cheerios. But McInerney too is suffering from an invisible wound. On McInerney’s watch, his teacher’s aide Benjamin Janicki may have assaulted the same children the teacher holds so dear.
Months after the allegations surfaced, McInerney still has difficulty speaking about what happened. In a barely audible voice, McInerney says when he learned of the alleged assaults, the charges were so unbelievable he couldn’t process them. He tries to elaborate, to explain what’s going on inside his head, but the words escape him. “I’m not very good at this,” he says. Although he never had children of his own, McInerney cares for his students so sincerely that few would question he felt like a parent would’ve that day. He wasn’t just flattened at the thought of one child suffering abuse—he had 25 children to think about. And he was astonished and disturbed about how he could have not seen what was going on in his own classroom.
Others are less surprised and less concerned about McInerney’s failure to prevent the alleged molestation. He may be the center’s Man of Steel, but he is still human—his powers do not include X-ray vision or an ability to be in 10 places at once. And if he does have a weakness, it is an easily exploitable one. “Peter has an unwavering faith in the goodness of people,” says Christy Bouchard, 35, whose sons attend the center. “In this case he was wrong. But the fault lies with Ben.”
McInerney says in 30 years of teaching at the center he had never been asked to take a sex abuse prevention seminar. He attended three in the weeks after Janicki’s arrest. He wanted to know how to respond if students asked about Janicki’s absence. “The first day we were back a kid looks at me and asks, ‘Ben’s in jail?’ ” says McInerney, who nodded yes in response. “You want to be honest, respect their curiosity, but they don’t need to see a police report.”
For McInerney, the hurt doesn’t end with the children who were allegedly victimized. McInerney has to come to terms with the possibility that the Children’s Center may not fully recover from the allegations—and that the place to which he has given nearly three decades of his life may ultimately close for good. What would he do if that happened? McInerney shakes his head. He’s not sure. Probably the same thing someplace else. The idea obviously pains him, and his bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows form an uncharacteristic frown. But only for a moment: The CD player in the corner blares the first few notes of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” McInerney jumps up from the child-size table where he was molding playdough and shouts to his tiny pupils, “Who wants to dance?!?!”
On August 4, 2010, Benjamin Janicki was arrested and charged with six felonies relating to three victims. Two more felonies, and a fourth victim, were added to that tally days later. Four of the eight charges are sexual assault on a child. The other four are sexual assault on a child/position of trust felony charges, which are considered more serious crimes. Although the CDHS reported that Janicki admitted to assaulting as many as 13 children, it appears that the district attorney will not file further charges. Arraignment in the case was postponed and has been rescheduled for March 11.
Janicki, whose attorney declined to speak with 5280, has been in custody since his arrest on $350,000 bond. If he is convicted of the crimes with which he is charged, Janicki would likely serve prison time and would be required to register as one of the approximately 725,000 convicted sex offenders in the United States upon his release. If that happens, Janicki would have something in common with at least one other man on that list.
It has been close to 19 years since Martin Rodriguez-McDonald molested a young girl at the Children’s Center. Like Janicki, Rodriguez-McDonald had been hired as a teacher’s aide, but he was brought on as a teacher when he completed the necessary requirements. Like Janicki, Rodriguez-McDonald was a young man—in his early 20s—when he worked at the center. And like Janicki, whose brother had attended the center, Rodriguez-McDonald’s family had ties to the church.
At 5 feet 2 inches tall and about 120 pounds, Rodriguez-McDonald wouldn’t appear intimidating to anyone—except, perhaps, a child. That child was a four-year-old girl. It took her eight years to tell her mother that she had been sexually abused by her teacher. In the fall of 2000, at the age of 12, she described to her mom—and the police—what she remembered. According to her statements in the application for arrest warrant, the girl recalled that Rodriguez-McDonald would take her into a dark filing room at the center under the auspices of telling her scary stories. During what she related as several incidents, Rodriguez-McDonald kissed her, forced her to touch him until he ejaculated, and fondled her underneath her clothing.
Rodriguez-McDonald worked at the Children’s Center for a handful of years but was working at the Denver Soccer Club coaching youth soccer when the DPD arrested him in September 2000. Rodriguez-McDonald (who now lives in Idaho and, through his attorney, declined comment for this article) pleaded guilty to sexual assault on a child on October 16, 2001, almost a decade after his crime. The charges of sexual assault on a child/pattern of conduct and sexual assault on a child/position of trust were dismissed. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, 12 years of sex offender intensive supervision probation, $3,800 in restitution payments, and no unsupervised contact with children.
But it wasn’t just Rodriguez-McDonald who had been in a position of trust. That four-year-old girl, her parents, a hundred other families, and the Colorado Department of Human Services Division of Childcare had expected the Children’s Center’s staff to keep its children safe. Parents who rely on childcare expect that every person at a daycare center has their children’s best interests at heart. They expect the organization has made certain that this is the case. And they expect that if someone with malicious intentions does slip through the front door, there is enough supervision to protect their kids from harm.
Nearly 50 adults try to get comfortable in folding chairs in the basement of Messiah Community Church, just 10 blocks from the Children’s Center. Feather Berkower, a diminutive but outspoken woman, has set up her PowerPoint presentation. Berkower, 49, is the founder of Parenting Safe Children, a local organization dedicated to child sex abuse prevention. Less than six weeks after the allegations at the Children’s Center, the Park Hill Parent’s Day Out organization has asked Berkower to give an informational workshop.
There is palpable tension in the room as Berkower begins. She starts with basic, yet chilling statistics. More than 20 percent of children are sexually abused before the age of eight. Up to 50 percent of sexual offenders are juveniles. Ninety-six percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by males. The average pedophile abuses approximately 250 children. The four most common places for child molestation to occur are at school, during sports programs, at religious institutions, and inside homes—the child’s or someone else’s.
“Any child can be abused,” Berkower says, explaining that sex abuse crosses age, economic, racial, and cultural barriers, “but children with parents who are uninformed about sex abuse are more vulnerable. Children whose parents don’t spend time with them are more vulnerable. Children whose parents don’t ask questions of or listen to them are more vulnerable. Children without a no-secrets rule are more vulnerable.” The crowd of mostly thirtysomethings shifts uneasily in its seats.
Segments of Berkower’s workshop are meant to be interactive with the audience, but it’s a struggle to find volunteers. Berkower explains that parents should teach children that there are proper names for their private parts. “Can anyone give me a slang term for the vagina?” Berkower asks. The room is quiet. “C’mon guys,” she pleads. “No one has ever heard the word ‘cherry?’ ” Silence. Berkower sighs. “Folks, this is a big reason why pedophiles can do what they do. They prey on our denial and our embarrassment and our inability to talk about sex—with each other and with our children.” Someone from the back of the room offers va-jay-jay. Berkower smiles. “Good,” she says. “What else?” A few words ring out. When the room goes silent again, Berkower explains why it’s important for children to use the correct anatomical terms for their private parts. She relays a story of a young girl who was trying to tell her teacher that her father was molesting her. The girl told her: “My daddy ate my cookie.” The teacher didn’t understand what the girl was trying to say.
The primary focus of Berkower’s workshop is for parents to make their children off-limits to pedophiles. She teaches that it’s the parents’ responsibility to ensure their child’s safety—not to expect that from the soccer league, the daycare center, the school, or the state. To do that, Berkower suggests teaching children body safety rules. Numbering 10 in all, her body safety rules seem like straightforward parenting (see below), yet when Berkower asks how many people had talked with their kids about these things, very few hands meet the air. Even fewer hands go up when Berkower asks how many parents had asked their kids’ babysitters or coaches or teachers about sexual abuse. “By asking questions about sexual abuse prevention training or background checks or sexual misconduct policies to these people,” Berkower explains, “you advise them that you are monitoring them.” Pedophiles, Berkower says, don’t want to get caught. They select their prey based on the chances of success, and they can often succeed if they find a child who has not been taught how to protect himself.
“Body Safety Rules”
from Parenting Safe Children
- No one is allowed to touch your private body parts, except to help you clean them or if the doctor or nurse needs to examine them. (This includes siblings.)
- 2You are not allowed to touch someone else’s private body parts.
- It is OK to touch your own private body parts as long as you do it in private.
- No one (adult or teenager) is allowed to take pictures of your private body parts or show you pictures of naked people.
- When playing with friends, play with your clothes on.
- You and all of your family members are allowed to have privacy when bathing, dressing, and using the toilet. (Model privacy for your children.)
- No one is allowed to make you kiss or touch him or her if you don’t want to. No one is allowed to kiss or touch you if you don’t want him or her to, including relatives. You are allowed to choose whom you kiss and touch, and when you kiss and touch people.
- You have permission to say ‘no’ and get away if anyone tries to touch your private body parts or tries to break any of your body safety rules. You never have to do what an adult or anyone tells you to do if the person is breaking a body safety rule or making you unsafe.
- If someone tries to or does touch your private body parts, try to get away, and then go tell a trusted adult.
- If someone tells you to keep a secret about touching private body parts, tell an adult.
Feather Berkower co-authored Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse, available at parentingsafechildren.com.
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.
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].