Sexual abuse occurs at Texas
day cares that all too often go
How the state keeps the
truth about day care sexual
abuse from parents
By Tony Plohetski and Andrea Ball
Austin American-Statesman | Dec. 6 2018
When Abilene police began following an electronic trail as part of a child pornography case this year, they quickly learned that the suspect had a frightening level of access to young children.
Benjamin Roberts, 25, had worked in recent years at several church-based day care operations throughout the West Texas city of 120,000 people.
Along with a trove of illicit photos, investigators said, they found a pair of children’s underwear when they raided his home. Police also said Roberts confessed to inappropriately touching a child in 2017.
“There is a high likelihood more victims are in our community,” the police department warned in a news release.
Over the next few months, investigators say, more parents came forward with information and police pulled security video from facilities where Roberts worked, finding what they described as objectionable physical contact with children.
Roberts was indicted in June on a charge of continuous sexual abuse of children after authorities said they learned he had abused as many as eight in his care, all under age 14. He has already pleaded guilty D to a federal charge of receiving child pornography but has not been sentenced on that charge.
The case highlights an alarming aspect of day care facilities across Texas that has previously received little scrutiny from state regulators and watchdog groups. An American-Statesman investigation has discovered more than 450 children – almost one a week – suffered sexual abuse inside a Texas day care facility in the past 10 years, often at the hands of those entrusted to care for them.
The newspaper discovered the previously unreported number of sexual abuse cases as part of data from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services after requesting reports of all instances of abuse and neglect.
But the state does not require regulatory agencies or day care providers to reveal to parents that sexual abuse might have occurred in their day care facilities, even if there has been an arrest, as in Roberts’ case. If the Department of Family and Protective Services investigates an allegation of abuse at an operation, the state requires the child care site to post the results of the investigation in a prominent place in the facility – but only temporarily. Once the state does a follow-up inspection, that document is posted at the day care facility and the investigation letter is taken down.
Inspection documents can be so vague as to give no inkling that sexual abuse might have occurred. In the Abilene case, inspectors cited the day care director at Wylie Baptist Church Child Development Center for failing to report Roberts’ suspected child abuse to authorities. But parents would have had no idea about that if they only saw the online violation, which reads, “during the course of this investigation it was determined that the operation did not report to child care licensing an incident in which children in care were placed at risk.”
Meanwhile, even when the state does provide details of sexual abuse on its public website, citations remain on the site only for three years, meaning earlier histories of sexual abuse are invisible to parents.
Texas day care employees are required to undergo training in how to recognize, prevent and report suspected child abuse of all kinds.
The findings are part of the American-Statesman’s yearlong investigation into these and other problems at Texas child care facilities. The newspaper read thousands of documents, researched dozens of day care safety records, analyzed existing data and built its own database to find patterns and trends.
What the newspaper found was that dangerous conditions exist inside many Texas day care facilities, leaving hundreds of children in need of medical care and nearly 90 children dead as a result of abuse or neglect since 2007. In this series, the newspaper explores problems such as day care sexual abuse, deaths, injuries, illegal operations and state oversight. The newspaper also presents potential solutions to some of those problems.
The investigation involving Roberts also led police to arrest the day care operator who they say had knowledge of what was happening, yet did not alert law enforcement. Wylie Baptist Church fired her.
“The investigation has indicated that persons did communicate concerns to the director, and the director did not report those,” Abilene Police Chief Stan Standridge said in a news conference over the summer.
The state requires background checks for child care employees, but at the time of his arrest, Roberts had no criminal record and passed a background check.
“The number of child survivors of sexual abuse in Texas child care is disturbing and tragic,” said Stephanie Rubin, chief executive officer of Texans Care for Children.
Assessing the risk
For reasons the Statesman found as part of its yearlong investigation, it is difficult to determine how the number of sexual abuse cases at Texas day care facilities compares with those in other states – in part because of a lack of uniform state-by-state record-keeping that tracks instances of all types of abuse.
The issue of sexual abuse inside child care facilities has received scant attention. Most national studies have focused on physical and emotional abuse, not sexual infractions.
David Finkelhor, who heads the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire and has performed some of the most comprehensive research on the topic, agreed it is difficult to place Texas’ 450 cases in national perspective. Nationally, there are an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 cases of child sex abuse reported annually in all settings, not just day care facilities, studies have concluded.
Finkelhor found that the risk of sexual abuse to children in day care is about 5 children abused per 10,000 enrolled. Yet that research is 30 years old.
At the time of his research, there was a national wave of panic that led to allegations – many later debunked – that day care providers were victimizing children. Part of those fears included workers using children in satanic ritual abuse.
“Although a disturbing number of children are sexually abused in day care, the large numbers coming to light are not an indication of some high risk to children in day care,” the study said at the time. “They are simply a reflection of the large number of children in day care and the relatively high risk of children to sexual abuse in all settings.”
Over the years, Central Texas has had several high-profile and controversial cases involving allegations of sexual abuse at day care facilities, including the infamous case of Dan and Fran Keller, who operated a child care center in Oak Hill on Austin’s southwestern edge. Last year, they were declared innocent after serving more than 21 years in prison after being convicted of sexual abuse as part of alleged satanic rituals on children in their care.
The state’s highest criminal court also is still deciding the fate of Greg Kelley, a Williamson County man convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison after a jury found he abused a child at an in-home day care facility in 2014, when Kelley was a high school student. A district judge has recommended Kelley be declared innocent, and he has been released from prison on bond.
Sex abuse in illegal day care
Texas officials say their analysis of data shows sexual abuse of children most often happens in illegal operations that are not monitored by the state. They also said sexual abuse of children is most commonly reported to them by law enforcement or medical professionals who treat a child.
“Obviously, these types of investigations are extraordinarily difficult for the child, and a potential crime, so we always coordinate with law enforcement and utilize the local child advocacy center for a forensic interview handled by a professional,” said Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. “This ensures the child only has to talk about it once.”
Finkelhor said instances of child sexual abuse in day care facilities might be relatively small because research has shown that many perpetrators are generally attracted to pre-pubescent children – but those older than ones typically found at day care sites.
Yet at the same time, Allison Benesch, a former Travis County prosecutor who handled sex abuse cases, said day care facilities – just as any place with a large number of children – can provide an easy opportunity to a potential offender. Child care workers can form special relationships with children they view as targets, she said, including those who might come from troubled homes or who are quiet and reserved.
“Sexual abuse in a day care setting happens in much the same way as any setting,” she said. “You have a whole lot of kids to look at and decide (who to victimize).”
Danger from the outside
In some instances, perpetrators who sexually abuse children at day care facilities have ties to a facility but don’t operate it or work there.
That was the case in Plano this year, when a 19-year-old was sentenced to 33 years in prison for sexually assaulting a 5-year-old boy at his mother’s in-home day care site. The teen admitted to the crime, police said.
Another day care operator’s son was sent to prison last year for 40 years after a jury in Fort Worth convicted him of molesting a 9-year-old girl.
In Galveston County, a man was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2014 after police said the 76-year-old assaulted a child at what authorities said was his wife’s unlicensed in-home facility.
In Roberts’ case in Abilene, his attorney, Kenneth Leggett, said police have not yet supplied evidence of his client’s guilt.
But court documents describe a pattern of behavior that could send Roberts to prison for life. The records say he told investigators he had been working at Wylie Baptist Church Child Development Center for about two years and “admitted to having sexual thoughts of children where he worked.” He identified one specific child to whom he was attracted, documents say.
A parent told police that she had found her child alone in a bathroom with Roberts. The child initially said no sexual contact occurred but reported in a later forensics interview that Roberts had kissed and touched him in private areas.
Additional children told investigators Roberts had engaged in similar acts with them, including one boy who said Roberts rubbed his stomach.
Police also said they reviewed security video from the facility and found Roberts behaving in alarming ways, including inappropriately touching children.
The attorney for Amanda McKee, the former director of the Wylie Baptist Church Child Development Center, did not return phone calls about the case. McKee is charged with failure to report – a Class A misdemeanor for which she faces up to a year in jail.
The Wylie Baptist Church Child Development Center remains in operation. After McKee and Roberts were charged, church officials released a statement: “We are in heartfelt prayer for all of those involved in this difficult situation.”