Child care lease denied

School board concerned about sex abuse inquiry

No charges filed, police say

Center was to operate at Sandymount school

Carroll County

May 28, 2004|By Hanah Cho and Athima Chansanchai | Hanah Cho and Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

The Carroll County school board voted yesterday not to renew a summer lease with a Finksburg-based child care company because of a continuing investigation into allegations of sexual abuse.

Rainbows and Reasons child care center wanted to rent Sandymount Elementary School for 39 days, from June 14 to Aug. 6, for $477.23 for a summer day care program. The Finksburg-based Playtime Corp. owned two Rainbows and Reasons child care centers - one in Westminster, the other in Finksburg.

Corporate documents list William Cunningham as Playtime's resident agent. However, Cunningham's attorney, Joseph Murtha, said his client sold the Westminster day care center, in the 2100 block of Sykesville Road, this year.

While Cunningham owned the Westminster center, it became the focus of a Carroll County Child Abuse and Sexual Assault Unit investigation into allegations that a 1-year-old boy had been sexually abused. No charges have been filed, said Sgt. John Carhart, the state police supervisor of the unit.

As a result of the investigation, the state's Child Care Administration suspended Rainbows' license in Westminster, a decision that was upheld in October at a closed hearing by Alan B. Jacobson, administrative law judge. Cunningham filed an appeal of the decision in Carroll County Circuit Court, but later withdrew it.

During the course of the investigation last year, state police arrested James A. Gregory, 58, of Baltimore on Aug. 19. Investigators said he worked as a part-time computer technician at Rainbows in Westminster. Authorities identified Gregory as a convicted child molester wanted by Washington state police for a parole violation 10 years ago. Gregory has been extradited to Washington. He was sentenced in October 1990 to 3 1/2 years in prison for child molestation, authorities said.

School board President C. Scott Stone and board member Laura K. Rhodes voted against renewing the lease, while members Thomas G. Hiltz and Susan G. Holt voted for it. Board member Gary W. Bauer was absent. Because of the tie vote, the lease was rejected. A majority vote is needed for approval.

Rainbows' lease was one of four being considered by the board. But Stone asked the members to consider Rainbows' lease separately from the other three.

"I can't in good conscience approve the request," Stone said. "I can't support anything that would potentially put children at risk."

The school system acts as a landlord, providing space for private day care centers for summer programs, which are not run by the schools.

Hiltz said that he also did not want to put any children at risk, but that he was "reluctant to make decisions based on allegations."

Rhodes said summer day care programs at schools are recommended by parents.

School Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said he has not received calls from parents at Sandymount. "I assume they know what is going on," he said.

Murtha, Cunningham's attorney, said the board's decision reflects a minority opinion.

"Other than elected officials, all the people looking out for the children thinks it's OK," Murtha said. "It seems rather partisan."

The board did agree to renew another lease for a summer day care program run by the Playtime Corp. at Spring Garden Elementary School in Hampstead.

Civil court documents state that Gregory worked at the Westminster day care center in exchange for reduced rent at a halfway house in Baltimore owned by Cunningham. Judge Jacobson wrote that Cunningham was aware of Gregory's frequent lapses into "alcoholic binges" and at least some of his criminal background.

The documents show that the CASA investigation also revealed "instances where supervision at Rainbow ranged from lax to nonexistent." Parents testified that their children were left unattended and vulnerable, while a CASA investigator testified about the possible molestation of a 5-year-old boy and several young girls, in addition to the 1-year-old boy.

Additional witness testimony before Jacobson convinced the judge that Gregory, though not charged with assault at the center, had ample opportunity to cause the children there harm.

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