A teaching assistant who was arrested for sexually abusing an 8-year-old student had a history of misconduct allegations yet managed to keep his job for years, according to a News4 I-Team investigation.
Those allegations were not properly reported to authorities, according to an internal D.C. government inspection.
Juan Arturo Perez, a longtime instructor at Northwest Washington, D.C.’s CentroNía child care program, pleaded guilty to sexual assault against a young girl in 2018. An I-Team review of Perez’s case and D.C. child care inspections show a track record of prior allegations against Perez and a series of failures by CentroNia to properly notify authorities about Perez and several other cases of employee misconduct at its facilities.
CentroNía, which serves hundreds of students at its sites in D.C. and Maryland, admitted errors that could have prevented the 2018 abuse case, in an interview with the I-Team.
“The bottom line is that we failed in that instance,” CentroNía President Myrna Peralta said.
Source: NBC Washington I-team | Credit: Anisa Holmes
A July 2018 inspection of CentroNía by the D.C. Office of State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) said Perez was cited for “inappropriate conduct” by the center in 2004, when a corrective action form was placed in his employee file. On the form, it was noted Perez would be terminated if another incident occurred, according to the inspection. That inspection also found Perez later was accused of sexually abusing a child in 2015 and was suspended. According to the inspection, Perez was accused of touching a young girl’s breast, being overly affectionate and “begging the (girl’s) parent to let the child spend the weekend alone with him at the employee’s house,” during the alleged 2015 incident. He was later allowed to return to work at the child care center.
The OSSE inspection said there are no records indicating CentroNía notified authorities about the prior misconduct cases in 2004 or 2015.
“Because the facility’s leadership did not fully consider prior incidents in a manner that ensures the protection of the safety, health and welfare of all children within their care, this abuser has had access to children for more than 14 years,” the inspection said.
Peralta said CentroNía conducted an internal investigation of the 2015 allegations and said it found “no reason it was an intentional act.” But Peralta acknowledges Perez returned to his job and the organization did not notify authorities, as required by law in 2015.
CentroNía notified parents about Perez’s arrest in 2018 by letter. Details of the pattern of misconduct by Perez and CentroNía’s response to it were not released until the I-Team obtained a copy of OSSE’s inspection.
“It’s a glaring blind spot for CentroNía,” said Bryan Weaver, whose children previously attended CentroNía’s Columbia Heights child care center.
“It surprised me," Weaver said. "It surprised me very much.”
Child safety advocates said CentroNía and any of its employees who suspected abuse failed to follow D.C. law by failing to report to authorities the previous allegations of misconduct and abuse.
“It’s a crime," Baltimore Child Abuse Executive Director Adam Rosenberg said. "Failure to report (suspected child abuse) in Washington, D.C. has a maximum penalty of 180 days of incarceration or a penalty of $3,000.”
OSSE said it referred possible violations of mandatory reporting laws by CentroNía to the D.C. attorney general’s office. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Karl Racine declined to comment on whether an investigation was undertaken or ongoing.
“They kept this employee in their stead for almost a decade,” Rosenberg said. “It doesn’t seem to faze them that here is a guy with an issue. Here is a guy who is a walking red flag.”
A second employee was accused of sexually abusing a student in 2017, according to the OSSE inspection. The inspection said CentroNía failed to keep proper records on the case and failed to notify education authorities until 12 days after the alleged incident. The case was eventually dropped by Child and Family Services, according to the inspection, because the family withdrew the child form the center and did not want to pursue it. But OSSE’s inspection said the case showed “the impact of poor record keeping.” “No documentation was in this employee’s staff file to inform a new center director or senior manager of the child sex abuse investigation,” the inspection said. That same employee was later accused of “inappropriate conduct” with a child in 2018.
The OSSE inspection of CentroNía also cited six other less severe cases of employee misconduct that went unreported to D.C. authorities, including staff leaving children unattended or “grabbing children by their shoulder and aggressively placing in another area.” In all six cases, which range from December 2016 through April 2018, the employees involved were allowed to keep their jobs, the inspection said.
CentroNía said some of those employees were later dismissed.
D.C. State Board of Education member Jessica Sutter reviewed the I-Team’s findings and said the OSSE inspection shows a likely failure of training of employees and leadership at CentroNía.
“It’s (their) job to keep children safe," Sutter said. "The way the regulations and systems are set up, it means (they) have to report it to authorities who investigate abuse.”
According to the inspection, the OSSE required CentroNía to notify parents about the D.C. government enforcement actions. The agency also provided CentroNía a notice of intent to revoke its license if it didn’t take corrective action with following laws and regulations.
The OSSE ordered a restriction on CentroNía’s operation in late 2018. CentroNía was prohibited from enrolling new students for 45 days, according to the I-Team review.
Agency records show CentroNía has completed corrective actions ordered by the D.C. government.
Rosenberg, who advocates for stricter regulations and laws to protect children from possible abuse, said the penalty likely had little impact on CentroNía’s financial well-being or operation. Rosenberg said, “It’s an insignificant penalty to have 45 days of no new enrolees.”
CentroNía has a waiting list of 400 for slots in its D.C. child care facilities.
The OSSE did not answer specific questions from the I-Team about the CentroNía inspection but issued a written statement. In the the statement, an OSSE spokesperson said, “Based on the investigation, OSSE issued enforcement actions that included a detailed corrective action plan (CAP) aimed at ensuring that CentroNía is able to prevent any such incident from happening again and required CentroNía to notify the families of the incident and licensing enforcement action. As the licensing regulatory body, OSSE continues to monitor the facility closely to ensure compliance with all licensing requirements.”
“The Perez case really changed us fundamentally. It rocked us to our core,” Peralta said.
Peralta said at least six employees lost their jobs because of the findings of the OSSE investigation. She said the organization ordered training for all of its employees, including administrative staff, during the 45-day license restriction. CentroNía has added 200 cameras to increase visibility in its complexes to better monitor the activity of children and staff, Peralta said.
Peralta said CentroNía has also hired a full-time compliance monitor to ensure all rules and regulations are followed.
“Every single employee now has to go through mandatory reporting coursework, even if they’re not working with children,” Peralta said.
She acknowledged not all employees had undergone training in prior years.
Perez pleaded guilty to second-degree sex abuse and served six months in jail. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said deportation proceedings against Perez are pending.
I-Team attempts to reach Perez or his family were not successful.
Full OSSE statement:
"The health, safety, and well-being of students in licensed child development facilities throughout the District of Columbia is a top priority for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). Each of the 467 licensed child development facilities throughout the District are required to ensure the proper precautions and safeguards are taken to keep all children in care safe from harm. This requires rigorous adherence to District laws and regulations that mandate child development facilities to immediately report suspicious behavior or illegal activity to District agencies. This prompt reporting is required so that instances of suspected abuse, and other issues that impact child safety, can be investigated quickly and thoroughly, and any threats immediately removed. In response to allegations involving CentroNía in 2018, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) arrested an employee suspected of abuse, and CentroNía terminated the individual. In addition, OSSE conducted a thorough licensing investigation. Based on the investigation, OSSE issued enforcement actions that included a detailed corrective action plan (CAP) aimed at ensuring that CentroNía is able to prevent any such incident from happening again and required CentroNía to notify the families of the incident and licensing enforcement action. As the licensing regulatory body, OSSE continues to monitor the facility closely to ensure compliance with all licensing requirements."
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.