Bo Peep suit may last years Parents of 4 seek more than $400 million.

August 09, 1991|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Evening Sun Staff

A multimillion-dollar civil claim against the operators and teachers at the former Bo Peep Day Nursery in Bel Air, where it was alleged that as many as 10 children were molested, could be argued in court for years, attorneys say.

Parents of four of the children are seeking more than $400 million in damages. The parents, in the 18-count claim against former Bo Peep owners Deborah and Patrick Cassilly and two former teachers, allege negligence, assault, false imprisonment and other charges.

The children, according to the suit, "continue to suffer nightmares, anxiety, depression, crying spells and an array of fears and phobias." The parents say some of the money they are seeking would be used to pay for "indefinite" therapy for the children.

The lawsuit was filed in July 1990 but unsealed for the first time this week after the Baltimore Sun Co. argued successfully that it should be open to the press and the public. The parents named as plaintiffs had argued that publicity about the case would cause psychological harm to the children.

The question of whether abuse occurred at Bo Peep -- no criminal charges were ever filed -- already has caused an emotional debate among dozens of Harford County families for the past four years. The accusers and the accused, and supporters on both sides, say that question can never be answered to everyone's satisfaction.

"I personally don't think you're ever going to see an end to it," said Eric Siegel, one of the number of parents who disputed the allegations and helped raise money to defend against them. His daughter, now 13, attended Bo Peep between ages 2 and 11.

"There are no winners in this," Siegel said. "If it really happened, money is not going to help."

The Cassillys have filed motions to dismiss the suit and have denied that any abuse occurred at Bo Peep. The two teachers named as defendants, Rita Blevins and Martha Scarborough, also have filed motions to dismiss the claim.

Parents who never believed that abuse occurred claim the state used "Gestapo" tactics to shut down Bo Peep. Conversely, lawyers in the state attorney general's office who argued for revocation of the center's operating license called the allegations shockingly explicit.

A criminal investigation of the allegations was moved from Harford County to the Baltimore County state's attorney's office. Joseph I. Cassilly, the Harford state's attorney, is the cousin of Patrick Cassilly.

But no criminal charges have been filed. Scott Shellenberger, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County, said yesterday that the investigation remained open but inactive. He declined further comment.

The more than a dozen attorneys involved in the civil case are expected to argue scores of issues before they even get to trial.

Beyond the unsealing of the court file, which has been the central issue so far, attorneys must argue over how to take testimony from the children, who were between 3 and 4 years old at the time of the alleged abuse and are between 7 and 8 years old now.

No children testified about the allegations during 20 days of administrative hearings that resulted in the closure of Bo Peep in 1989. The Cassillys and their employees have argued repeatedly that they have never been allowed to confront their accusers.

Lawyers for the state were allowed by rules of administrative law to keep the children from testifying during the administrative hearings. They said such testimony would risk further trauma.

The allegations were detailed by social workers, therapists, physicians and others.

In the civil case, however, the children must testify in some forum, be it by closed-circuit television out of the presence of the defendants on in open court.

Attorney John S. Karas, representing the plaintiffs, said he would probably argue for some form of "protected" testimony, such as by closed-circuit television. But attorneys for the defense are expected to argue for testimony in open court, he said.

"The more pressure they put on the children, the less likely the children will be able to testify successfully against them," Karas said.

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