PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Reports of child abuse and neglect involving Providence students have skyrocketed since 2016, raising uncomfortable questions for school officials about what’s fueling the trend, a Target 12 Investigation has discovered.
The initial surge is traceable to a new law and the subsequent high-profile arrest of an elementary school principal, Violet LeMar, who was charged in 2017 with failing to immediately report sexual abuse allegations to the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families.
But Target 12 found the number of annual abuse reports has remained high, with no signs of returning to the lower levels seen before the new law.
In 2016, abuse reports that were “indicated” — meaning DCYF child protective investigators found evidence of abuse or neglect — rose to 128 compared to 56 a year earlier.
The following year that number more than tripled to 417, and again topped 400 the next year, according to data released by DCYF, which doesn’t include unfounded reports.
The trend has raised concern for R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who assumed control of the embattled Providence school district on Friday.
“These numbers have made me very uncomfortable,” she told Target 12.
Abuse reports first spiked in 2016, the year the General Assembly passed a new law requiring school employees to report any knowledge of sexual abuse to DCYF within 24 hours.
The change was spurred by revelations that sexual abuse had been happening quietly for decades at St. George’s School, a prestigious private school in Middletown.
It made a quick impression.
Barely a year later, LeMar, then-principal of Harry Kizirian Elementary School in Providence, was arrested and charged under the new law for failing to report alleged child molestation by gym teacher James Duffy to DCYF within 24 hours.
There have been at least two other cases involving the same charge in Cranston and Warwick schools, according to a review of court documents, but the LeMar case generated the most attention and sent shockwaves through the school system.
“People are aware of this case and what happened to Violet and they’re scared,” Tom Gulick, LeMar’s attorney, told Target 12. “People don’t want to have their careers ruined by failing to report something.”
LeMar pleaded no contest to the charge in Superior Court earlier this year and was given a one-year “filing,” meaning her record will be wiped clean next year if she maintains good behavior. She was let go by the school department earlier this year.
She declined an interview for this story, but Gulick contends she was treated unfairly, and didn’t receive any training about the new law.
“There were numerous people who had the same knowledge that Violet had that did not do anything and were not charged,” Gulick said, pointing out that she reported the allegations to human resources at the time.
“Unfortunately, she lost a career over this,” he added.
An ugly truth
While Target 12 only analyzed reported child abuse in Providence, the numbers offer a window into a widespread problem across Rhode Island.
The nonprofit Rhode Island Kids Count estimates there were 2,361 indicated reports of child abuse and neglect in 2018, while the number including unfounded reports totaled nearly 22,000. And experts say many of those reports originate in schools.
The largest number of incidents were reported in Providence, the rate per capita was even higher in Woonsocket, West Warwick, Central Falls and Pawtucket, according to the group.
State Rep. Marvin Abney, a Newport Democrat who sponsored the 2016 abuse law in the House, was pleased to learn it has resulted in more reporting. Responding to initial concerns about over-reporting, he and Sen. Maryellen Goodwin tweaked the statute last year to let school employees report abuse to administrators, who are then mandated to report to DCYF.
But the high volume of reports has continued even after that change, which Abney fears is revealing an ugly truth.
“It tells me that this kind of abuse has been going on all the time, but it simply wasn’t reported,” he said. “It’s a terrible, terrible problem. It makes me mad.”
The sentiment was echoed by Goodwin, D-Providence, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate.
“Increased reporting was the purpose of our legislation, and it’s very gratifying to see that the bill is accomplishing that goal,” she said in a statement. “Ultimately, I hope it serves as a deterrent to abuse by prompting schools and other institutions to adopt more stringent practices to prevent it and ensure that kids are safe.”
The head of the Providence Teachers Union disagrees with the lawmakers’ assessments, however, claiming the law hasn’t shed light on anything new.
While agreeing that people should be punished for inappropriate touching, union president Maribeth Calabro argues the new law has created widespread confusion about what should be reported.
As a result, she said, teachers, administrators and even students are over-reporting incidents to DCYF out of fear.
“Nobody wants to be that person who didn’t call,” Calabro told Target 12.
Providence school employees are automatically put on administrative leave if they are accused of abuse, which last year resulted in 24 employees – mostly teachers – missing a combined 920 school days, as Target 12 has previously reported.
The teachers must remain out of school until they are cleared by DCYF, police and the school district, and Calabro said the process has contributed in part to widespread chronic absenteeism among teachers.
Target 12’s review of data showed the time accused teachers spent out of school represented more than half the days missed by chronically absent teachers on administrative leave and 5% of the 18,984 days missed by all chronically absent teachers. (The school department defines a teacher as chronically absent if they miss at least 10% of the school year.)
“It takes a long time,” Calabro said of the investigative process, adding that none of the allegations made against teachers last year resulted in criminal charges.
More reports, more charges
The abuse reports ultimately end up on the desk of Detective Sgt. Michael Wheeler at the Providence Police Department.
Wheeler, who oversees the Youth Service Bureau, said he feels somewhat conflicted about the numbers.
On the one hand, he said, abuse may have been previously underreported, so the heightened awareness surrounding the issue is good. But on the other hand, he now believes people are over-reporting, which poses another significant challenge for investigators.
“If you over-report, you could miss a report or two,” he said. “Rather than reading 56 indicated reports, now we’re reading over 400.”
DCYF did not break down the data by where the abuse occurred — at home, at school or in the community — but Wheeler said in his experience, the majority of child abuse is happening at home.
The veteran detective, who is in charge of school resource officers and investigators, said the lion’s share of abuse findings by DCYF don’t rise to the level of a crime. However, there has been a corresponding increase in child abuse charges citywide in recent years.
Providence police charged 32 people for child abuse last year and have 14 open investigations. The charges represent a 45% increase since 2015, the year before the new law passed.
Wheeler said the state should consider giving the school department more leeway to investigate allegations before calling DCYF because, depending on the situation, it could potentially save time and resources.
“At the end of the day we all want to make sure the kids are safe,” Wheeler said. “Maybe the schools – giving them more latitude of what they can and cannot ask so when they report to DCYF they can give a full report, not just what a second grader said to them.”
Abney disagrees, saying over-reporting is a small price to pay if it means police are catching more child abusers.
“On my watch, you’re not going to get away with abusing anyone, but certainly not little kids,” Abney said.
A need for training
While the people interviewed by Target 12 disagreed about the underlying issue, nearly everyone found common ground on the need for better training.
Documents obtained by Target 12 through a public records request show Providence school employees didn’t have to acknowledge familiarity with the new law until the start of the 2017-2018 school year, more than a year after it took effect.
The school department provided no evidence that employees were trained on the law earlier than fall of 2017, and former school department spokesperson Emily Martineau did not answer repeated questions about when and how teachers were trained on the statute. (LeMar was charged in August 2017; the incident had taken place the previous spring.)
“We all signed a paper acknowledging that we all knew we were mandated reporters, but I don’t think that enough detail was given,” Calabro said, adding teachers need “real training with all the parties involved.”
Interim Superintendent Fran Gallo, who joined the district this year, said she didn’t know if any training happened in 2016.
Infante-Green tells Target 12 she wants to meet with police, school administrators and DCYF to come up with a plan. The issue, will be part of her focus going forward, she said.
“Student safety is the most important part for me, and it should be for every adult in the building,” she said. “So we need to get this right.”