Parents of day care kids may never know extent of abuse

Parents at a Bear day care where a teacher was caught on video inappropriately touching three students may never find out if their children also were victims.

Anthony Rodriguez, a teacher there, was arrested in 2015. Parents whose children were not identified as victims in videotapes that alerted authorities to Rodriguez never learned of the abuse until they read about the 21-year-old’s guilty plea and sentencing in The News Journal this week. That lag, they say, robbed them of the chance to determine if anything happened to their children.

“I just want to make sure I do what I need to do as a parent, but now they took that away from me,” said Nicole Rittenhouse, a mother who withdrew her 6-year-old son from Kidz Ink II’s after-school program this week. “And they seem to think there is nothing wrong with that.”

Now, Rittenhouse and others are calling for legal action and a change in Delaware law that would force the state and day care administrators to notify not just law enforcement but also parents whose children attend a facility if any abuse or neglect occurs.

The parents hope to find support in a state that has made significant reforms in the aftermath of the massive and horrific child sex abuse case of former Lewes pediatrician Earl Bradley.

Senate Majority Whip Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, said she would be open to legislation if more information about the incidents at Kidz Ink II shows a gap in protecting children in Delaware.

“If there was legislation that was needed, I would have to believe you would see us all come together,” she said. “We never ever want to see any of our kids harmed in any way.”

The co-owner of Kidz Ink. – a day care chain with six locations statewide – has defended the way his staff handled the sexual abuse and the lack of notification to parents who sent their children to the Porter Road day care in Bear.

While walking beneath surveillance cameras that dot nearly every corner of his day care, Phil Kitson explained that his staff notified authorities in July of 2015 as soon as video came to light showing Rodriguez kissing and hugging a student in a classroom. Rodriguez was immediately fired and the staff gave police all available video from the server that covered approximately one to two weeks, he said.

“We could have fired him and not notified the agencies, and then the situation would have continued, but we felt it was a kiss that was totally inappropriate,” Kitson said. “Fortunately, we were able to apprehend a sex offender.”

Kitson said he wishes he had been able to notify parents, but that he was instructed not to by Delaware State Police. Doing so could “taint” the investigation, especially if parents were to plant any sex abuse accusations against Rodriguez in their children’s minds, he was told.

Delaware State Police Master Cpl. Jeffrey R. Hale said police do not prohibit day care centers from discussing ongoing investigations, but “do explain that anything that is discussed may jeopardize the outcome of the investigation.”

Hale said the safety of the children who attended the day care was always of the utmost importance. The children were not in danger once Rodriguez was arrested and dismissed, he said.

“Through the course of our investigation we were unable to identify any additional victims and at this time do not have any reason to believe that there are any [more],” Hale said.

Some parents still wonder what the scope of the state police investigation was and whether the video turned over to police was enough to determine the full extent of the abuse – especially because it spanned only a brief period of time and took approximately 18 months for the parents to learn of it.

“How did we even know to ask?” Rittenhouse said.

A jungle gym castle

Inside Kidz Ink II on Friday, it was business as usual, despite a particularly difficult week in which Kitson was fielding parent inquiries and had to sign the withdrawals of two students.

Toddlers went down for naps after lunch, while older children walked in line to a room filled with balls and a teal-colored jungle gym castle.

The upstairs classroom where Rodriguez supervised school-age children before and after school every day was filled with shamrock cutouts for St. Patrick’s Day. Cameras blinked in two corners of that room.

Rodriguez started working at Kidz Ink II on Dec. 10, 2012. No red flags showed up on his background check, drug test or reference check, according to Kitson.

The first hint of trouble with Rodriguez came on July 28. Food was left out in one of the classrooms, and the staff wanted to find the culprit.

They turned back the video footage – and caught something worse.

The video showed Rodriguez seated in a chair while he hugged and kissed a child standing between his open legs, according to information Deputy Attorney General Jan van Amerongen relayed to a judge at sentencing.

The staff member reported the incident to the state’s abuse hotline, turned over all available video and confronted Rodriguez about it the next day.

Rodriguez refused to look at the footage but denied kissing the boy on the lips, stating he had kissed only the top of the head, according to an affidavit of probable cause signed by a state police investigator.

The kiss violated day care policy so Rodriguez was fired.

A letter was sent home only to those parents whose children were in the classes that Rodriguez worked in. The letter – a standard practice at the day care whenever staff leaves – said Rodriguez no longer worked at Kidz Ink but did not explain why.

“If you have any questions or concerns please contact a member of our administrative team,” the letter said.

‘Bad touches’

State police launched their own investigation into the videos, and as part of that, reviewed all surveillance footage. The police were able to identify three children who appeared to be inappropriately touched by Rodriguez, according to van Amerongen.

The three, all age 7 at the time of the indictment, were interviewed by the Children’s Advocacy Center of Delaware.

One disclosed during the interview that Rodriguez had reached “deep down inside his swimming trunks and pinched his penis” at a birthday party at a home in June 2015, the affidavit said.

Kitson said while he feels for the parents whose children were abused, it is a violation of day care policy for parents to use staff members at private birthday parties or other events outside the facility.

At the birthday party, the boy said, “Ouch,” and Rodriguez said, “It was an accident,” according to the affidavit. He went on to describe the kisses and pinching as “bad touches” and said “it felt weird.”

This was enough evidence for police to arrest Rodriguez on Aug. 12, 2015. The police did not, however, let the public know of the arrest.

“At the time of the arrest of Anthony Rodriguez in August of 2015, the Delaware State Police were still conducting an on-going and active investigation and attempting to determine if Rodriguez had committed any further crimes against other day care attendees,” Hale said. “A news release was not crafted so as to not jeopardize the continuing investigation.”

The first public word of the sexual abuse came in November of 2016 when the office of Attorney General Matt Denn sent a press release saying Rodriguez, a day care worker, had pleaded guilty to sexual solicitation of a child and two counts of second-degree sexual abuse of a child by a person in a position of trust.

Few parents knew of that press release until three months later when Denn’s office sent another saying Rodriguez had been sentenced to 12 years in prison and was ordered to register as a Tier 3 sex offender.

Koala bear hugs

The late notice left some parents outraged.

One mother, who asked that her name not be used because her son is still in the day care, has been ticking through all the possibilities for when and where her child could have had contact with Rodriguez. Even though she knows her son was not in his classroom, she said her son took a particular liking to Rodriguez and would often cling to his legs like a “koala bear.”

At the dinner table one night this week, she casually asked her son if anybody at day care had ever inappropriately touched him. He answered “no.”

“He said, ‘If someone tried to do that, I would yell and kick,'” she said. “So, hopefully, we got the right reaction.”

But, she still wishes they could have had that conversation in 2015 – not now.

The mother is planning to move her son and has interviewed three day cares this week but is finding it difficult to secure a spot on short notice. She and other parents said they wouldn’t feel the need to pull their children had the day care communicated with them sooner about Rodriguez’s arrest.

“Had I known over a year ago that this had happened, but that they were taking the right actions, I wouldn’t have pulled him,” Rittenhouse said. “This could have happened anywhere, and I understand that.”

Kitson and Dawn Thompson, a spokesperson for the Delaware Department for Children, Youth and Their Families, have defended the lack of notification, saying it is not required under state law.

“As required by our regulations, the facility reported the incident to our child abuse reporting hotline and law enforcement, then took immediate action to protect children at the day care from future harm,” Thompson said.

Kitson is confident that no other children were sexually abused and has reassured parents that most of their children were not in the same classroom as Rodriguez.

“He was never in a room where he had to change a diaper or change a kid,” Kitson said. “He never was with young kids.”

Guy D’Andrea, a lawyer at Laffey, Bucci & Kent LLP, questioned whether Kitson’s actions have been enough. He is trying to talk to the victims’ parents and the parents of those who weren’t notified by the day care to determine if a civil lawsuit is warranted.

“We want to make sure all of the known abuse victims are known – not to the public – but to us,” he said. “It is to make the child whole, but also to hold them accountable for what they allowed to occur.”

“The abuser is to blame, but oftentimes they are allowed or emboldened because those who employed them don’t do anything about the abuse,” he explained.

Aside from a civil lawsuit, Rittenhouse said she believes the day care failed on a moral level that can be corrected only by ensuring state law is changed and this never happens again.

“There has to be some kind of moral obligation to let me know so I could do what needed to be done,” she said.

Source:http://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/local/2017/03/04/parents-day-care-students-may-never-know-extent-abuse/98691834/