Mishandling Of Bo Peep Case Teaches A Painful Lesson


August 25, 1991|By Mark Guidera

If the Bo Peep Day Nursery case shows us anything, it may be that reform is needed in the way investigators handle allegations of child abuse at day care centers.

The case apparently is closed now that parents who allege that their children were abused at Bo Peep have dropped a multimillion-dollar suit against the operators of the now-defunct day care center.

Since the case hit the news in 1987, there has been a clamor fromsome in the community to change the way day care child abuse investigations are handled. Still, little has been done.

The issue that needs addressing is how to protect the identity of day care centers and workers as complaints are investigated, while at the same time serving the public's right to know.

The need for this locally is reflected nationally, says Linda Williams, co-author of the book "Nursery Crimes," which documented the findings of 270 day care child-abuse cases nationwide.

Williams, a professor at the University of New Hampshire's

Family Research Laboratory, says letting the public know that a day care center is under investigation needs to be done "in a way that doesn't create hysteria and doesn't feed into a witch hunt."

Too often, hysteria breaks out and the community becomes split over guilt and innocence, Williams found in her research.

"It is a balancing act. On one hand, you don't want to do nothing while other kids at the center may be getting abused. On the other hand you don't want to create hysteria. We are litigious society.

"Imvestigators are under pressure to let people know about the possibility of abuse lest they get sued by parents if their kids are abused in the meantime."

Williams and others in the field of preventing and investigating child abuse at day care centers aren't sure what should be done.

To my mind, the point at which investigators should let the public know the name of a center under investigation is after strong evidence has been gathered that abuse occurred and that the alleged abuser is in some way connected with the center.

Perhaps this point is at which authorities suspend or revoke a day care license.

This didn't happen in the Bo Peep case.

The day care center was named in a court docket entry by the Department of Social Services, which was seeking a court order to suspend Bo Peep's operating license while it investigated the allegations.

It wasn't long before reporters had pieced together what was afoot and published sketchy information. Aftera judge sealed the case file, a television station filed a successful motion to have it unsealed.

From there, investigators, the courts and, yes, the press worked to keep confidential the identities of the allegedly abused children and their parents, even though some werenamed in documents.

However, the system had no such guarantee of confidentiality for day care center owners and workers named in the documents as under investigation.

Having guidelines that preserve the public's rights to know and protect the identities of all parties involved would at least build in enough time for children, parents and those under investigation to give their version of events to trained professionals.

We may never know what really happened back in 1987 when the parents of a 4-year-old girl reported she had told them she had been sexually abused at Bo Peep.

There have been no criminal charges and no trial.

Yet, at least four workers and the operators of the center, Deborah and Patrick Cassilly have been publicly implicated as possible abusers.

Their lives were turned upside down and reputations scarred.

It may be true that the emotional harm inflicted on an abused child may far outweighs that of an adult publiclyaccused of such a crime.

But it's also true that we need to pay more than lip service to axiom that Americans are innocent until proven guilty.

Complaints of child abuse at day care centers stir highly emotional feelings in a community, Williams says in her book. And that was certainly true in the Bo Peep case.

Such emotions can havea way of shipwrecking objectivity and even-handedness.

As Mark A.Walsh, director of Child Care Advisory Services Inc, a Fairport, N.Y. consulting firm, says, naming a day care center under investigationfor child abuse before evidence is gathered to support the claim canhave a tragic consequence.

"They are guilty period. The force of public opinion takes over."

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