More than 65 children have been sexually abused in Minnesota child-care facilities since 2007 in cases often linked to supervision failures by in-home providers, a Star Tribune investigation has found.
In most cases the abuse was committed by older children in day care or a son of the day-care provider -- not by an adult, according to a review of hundreds of pages of state licensing records and law enforcement reports.
In December 2009, for example, the teenage son of a St. Cloud provider was charged with repeatedly sexually assaulting a 5-year-old girl who napped in his room. In January 2011, a child-care operator in Benson, Minn., was reprimanded by state officials for failing to supervise a 13-year-old who was accused of exposing himself to a 4-year-old during a back-yard game of hide-and-seek. A month later, a Chaska provider lost her license after her 15-year-old son was accused of sexually assaulting a preschool girl while they were alone in a playroom.
Records suggest that state and county regulators took action when notified of allegations -- suspending operators' licenses or permanently shutting down day cares in more than 80 cases since 2007.
Nonetheless, the cases reflect a pattern of risk revealed by the Star Tribune's ongoing investigation of Minnesota's in-home day-care system. The dangers that surface in inspection records -- sleep deaths, household hazards, sexual abuse -- are most common in the same kind of child-care setting: a private home, where failures in judgment or supervision by a lone provider can put children in danger.
The Star Tribune's review of sex abuse cases has prompted state officials to take a closer look at their records, which show a clear pattern of abuse occurring when child-care providers failed to monitor what was happening in their homes.
"We know enough to know we have to do something about it," said Department of Human Services Inspector General Jerry Kerber. "Supervision [failure] leads to not only sexual abuse, but children wandering away -- serious injuries that children are experiencing in the homes.''
State officials are also now considering a tougher approach to sex-abuse training for child-care operators. The state has encouraged providers to take abuse-prevention training since 2004, but records maintained by Kerber's agency show that only a tiny fraction of Minnesota's 11,000 in-home, or family, child-care providers have actually taken the safety training.
The records also show that sexual abuse, like child-care deaths analyzed by the newspaper, is much more common at in-home day-care facilities than at large child-care centers. At child-care centers, licensing records show one case of substantiated sexual abuse since 2007; that involved a student helper in a child-care center at Hennepin Technical College who was caught in possession of cellphone pictures of partly clothed children in a bathroom. State officials investigated 51 other complaints at child-care centers. Two were listed as "concerning" but not proven; the other investigations fell apart because the children couldn't repeat claims of abuse or because security camera footage or day-care workers contradicted them. None of the cases at centers involved claims of children abusing other children.
Cory Woosley says the risk of sex abuse can be overlooked because parents and providers are often blinded by common stereotypes about child predators.
"Most people say [the predator is] a man in a trench coat in the park,'' said Woosley, a training director with the Minnesota Child Care Resource and Referral Network.
In reality, research shows that 40 percent of child sex abuse is committed by other children or adolescents.
"It's not the man in the trench coat -- it's your neighbor, it's the older boy on the bus,'' Woosley said. "It is an eye-opener to people."
That misunderstanding creates unique risks at in-home day cares, where children of widely varying ages are often mixed together, and where the provider's own children and relatives often mingle with children in care.
Minnesota requires child-care providers to allow criminal background checks on anyone 13 or older living in their homes. But enforcement records suggest that a failure of background checks is seldom to blame for the sex abuse incidents; many young perpetrators simply don't have criminal records.
A promising strategy
Five years ago, Scott County had a spate of sex abuse allegations that alarmed county officials.
As they analyzed the cases, inspector Nancy Berndt says, regulators noticed two patterns: The providers' own children were usually the accused, and the misconduct was preventable.
The devastation for children and parents left a deep impact on Berndt, but she also remembers how the incidents rattled providers. Recalling one whose son was accused, Berndt said: "It was earth-shattering to this woman to think what her son may have or may not have done."
To alert child-care providers to the risks, Berndt helped design a safety course, "My Child Wouldn't Do That." It warns them that they could easily lose their businesses and find their own children facing criminal penalties.
Since the training took effect in 2010, sex abuse allegations in Scott County have fallen off, from about two each year to none in 2011 or 2012.
"What's very interesting is the feedback we get from providers" said Shona Buesgens, supervisor of the county's child-care licensing office. "One said: I'll never let my 15-year-old kid downstairs again with day-care kids without me."
Carrie Speikers, who worked in child-care centers for 14 years before opening her own home day care in 2004, found the course wonderful but "scary." Speikers, who has five children of her own, placed their bedrooms off limits to all children in care and bought an extra remote monitor. She also sat her own kids down for a family meeting to reinforce the importance of boundaries and the concept of good touch/bad touch.
"It made me really step back and think," Speikers said. "Every decision I make in the course of a day can affect so many families' lives, children's lives, my life, my family's life."
Since 2004 the state of Minnesota, too, has encouraged child-care providers to take a special training course on sex abuse prevention. But it has never made the training mandatory, and the take-up rate is modest. Records show that 483 family child-care providers have taken the course -- out of roughly 11,000 in the state -- along with 169 day-care center workers.
Kerber said that isn't good enough, and that the state is considering making training mandatory.
"People don't want to believe ... that their child would ever do something like that," Kerber said. "The kind of training necessary for those [providers] has to be very direct.''
Sex abuse in day care remains uncommon, considering that Minnesota has roughly 141,000 children in licensed care in a typical year.
To determine how often it occurred, and under what circumstances, the Star Tribune reviewed hundreds of licensing citations covering the last five years. State records showed 77 cases of sexual abuse: Of those, 11 involved boyfriends, spouses or relatives who were not licensed caregivers; three involved adults who were licensed providers; 49 named other children as the abusers.
The newspaper's tally of 65 victims is conservative because some incidents involved multiple but unspecified numbers of child victims. The count also omitted children who were victims of indecent exposure and cases where day-care children engaged in sexual contact and there was no clear perpetrator or victim. In six cases, the abuse did not involve a child in care. In five others, it was unclear if the victim was in child care or not.
The emotional impact of sexual abuse can be profound and enduring, said Libby Bergman, executive director of the Family Enhancement Center in Minneapolis.
Child victims are less likely to talk about abuse, she said, but can manifest their ordeal through stress, nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety. In one of the Scott County cases, police reports show, a child victim who never liked baths suddenly wanted to take two or three a day.
"Every time a child is sexually abused there is the potential for lifelong emotional and, as we're finding out now, physical impacts," Bergman said. "It really has a huge ripple effect in the family and the community."