L.A. Abuse Investigation Continues As Scope of Case Appears To Widen
Investigations by California authorities into the activities of what was apparently a child-pornography ring at a Manhattan Beach preschool indicate it was probably a large-scale and lucrative operation, officials said last week.
The officials also reported they were looking into cases of child abuse at other preschools in the state.
The proprietors and teachers indicted last month on 115 counts of sexually abusing 18 children at the Virginia McMartin Preschool could have produced and sold "millions of child-pornography photographs and films," Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Eleanor Barrett said last week in a sworn declaration.
"It is abundantly clear that all income from the operation of [the] school was a fraud upon the parents of the enrolled children," Ms. Barrett said. It is possible that as many as 125 children may have been transported from the school to other unspecified locations. At those locations, she alleged, the children were photographed and may have been "touched by strangers" in what could have amounted to a prostitution ring. (See Education Week, April 4, 1984.)
At a hearing scheduled for late last week, the seven defendants in the case, including the school's 76-year-old founder and three members of her family, were to be formally arraigned, according to Al Albergate, a spokesman for the district attorney's office.
At that hearing, Mr. Albergate said, the district attorney's office planned to ask that the three defendants who are now in jail be denied bail. "If released, they are a danger to the community and a continuing danger to some of the victims in the case," Mr. Albergate said.
Raymond Buckey, who has been charged with 75 counts of sexual abuse, continued molesting children after he was first arrested, but not charged, last September following a preliminary investigation, officials maintain.
The district attorney's office is investigating two other preschools in the Los Angeles area, according to Mr. Albergate. Henry Anthony Lawson, 23, the son of the owner of the Little Angel Day School Center in Lynwood, has been charged with molesting one of the students, as well as with sexually abusing his own son. Mr. Lawson is being held in lieu of $500,000 bail, Mr. Albergate said.
The other facility, the Hickory Tree Preschool in Torrance, is also under investigation, but no charges have been filed, Mr. Albergate said.
Meanwhile, therapists at the Children's Institute International, a private, nonprofit organization that works with child-abuse prevention and rehabilitation, have interviewed scores of children, most of them from the Virginia McMartin Preschool and some from the Hickory Tree Preschool, in an attempt to learn what happened to them.
According to Bradford Sales, a spokesman for the institute, the four therapists on the organization's child-abuse and neglect team have interviewed 140 children from the McMartin Preschool to encourage them to talk about their experiences. "Most of the kids we're seeing haven't told anybody," Mr. Sales said.
The therapists meet with each child for about three hours using puppets and a videotape camera "to distance the child enough from the fear to be able to come out with the secret," Mr. Sales said. The film of the child's interview is then shown to the child's parents, who also work with therapists.
The interviews may also be used by the district attorney's office as evidence in the trial.
Mr. Sales said there are 150 children still to be interviewed by the institute's therapists; another 400 people have called to ask for information about the interviews, he said.
Day-care facilities in California are licensed by the California Department of Public and Social Services. Applicants must submit to a preliminary check, including a health and safety examination of the facilities and a fingerprint check of the employees to ascertain whether they have criminal records, according to Lawrence Bolton, assistant chief counsel for the department. Licensed facilities are checked every three years, he said.
The department licenses 6,400 day-care centers and approximately 27,500 family day-care centers--in which a person provides care in his or her home for a small group of children.
Since 1978, Mr. Bolton said, the number of license revocations has increased tenfold. Licenses may be revoked for a number of reasons, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, and overcrowded facilities.
"We estimate that 70 percent of the revocations were based on abuse and neglect," Mr. Bolton said. "This includes sexual abuse, but we do not have a breakdown based on just sexual abuse."
"Of course, we can't be expected to know what's going on in all of the centers," Mr. Bolton said. "The primary way we find out about abuse situations is through the parents."