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May 24, 2010 permalink
College student Anne Bruscino left a three-year-old girl for five minutes on a swing in a playground surrounded by a chain-link fence, an act treated as abandonment by social services. From the looks of the article, Miss Bruscino is a woman driven by love of children, and not the kind who could separate children and parents and feel good about it. Her career prospects in child care are now over. Following the article we have a portrait of her likely replacement.
A 5-minute error, 25 years on child abuse list?
College student who hoped for teaching career faces off with state over inclusion on registry
ALBANY -- The 3-year-old girl was sitting alone on a playground swingset. A passing teacher knew something wasn't right. She stayed with her until a day care worker realized her error and rushed back outside.
It was a mistake that lasted five minutes. The little girl from Slingerlands, Caitlin, was never in danger.
Twenty months later, the College of Saint Rose honors student whose part-time job was to keep tabs on a group of toddlers at Albany's Cloverpatch Day Care Center has found herself trapped in an Orwellian vortex of government red tape. The fallout has turned her dream of becoming a teacher for children with special needs into a lingering torment.
Up until that crisp afternoon in October 2008, the background of 21-year-old Anne Bruscino was, by all accounts, solid. Sunday school teacher. Volunteer for children with disabilities. Doting day care worker. Successful college student.
Now, after the incident was reported to a child protective agency as part of Cloverpatch's standard procedure, Bruscino is listed as "indicated" for child neglect on the state's Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment. Unless a court overturns the state's decision, her name could remain there for about 25 years. In teaching circles it's the equivalent of a scarlet letter that will show up anytime a school or child-care provider runs an employment background check.
"If Anne Bruscino is a child abuser we're all child abusers, because there is not an adult in America who can claim to never have made that kind of mistake," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, upon learning of the case. "This demeans the whole notion of actual child abuse and this entire process has stolen time, money and effort from finding children who are in real danger."
On the day Caitlin was left outside, Bruscino immediately notified a supervisor at Cloverpatch, operated by the Center for Disability Services on South Manning Boulevard.
The child's parents were notified. A report was filed. A child-protective caseworker opened an investigation, and interviews took place. Three months later, Bruscino was fired. Then the real trouble began.
The records show Bruscino and another Cloverpatch worker, Frances Denham, had been watching seven children when one of the toddlers urgently needed to use a bathroom. The women hurried the group in from the playground, but one of the children darted away to greet an arriving parent.
Bruscino was distracted by the little boy who ran to his mother. She didn't perform a required head count of the children leaving the playground. Moments later, as she scanned the children with her eyes, Bruscino realized her mistake, according to the case file.
"I was upset," Bruscino told a judge during a hearing last year at the state Office of Children and Family Services. "I realized she must be on the playground and I ran out to the playground and found her with another teacher. ... She was not crying. She was not injured. I asked her if she was OK. She said she was fine."
Denham, 57, who later quit the job she said paid her $8-an-hour to start, is not surprised the incident triggered an overwhelming response. "Nobody got hurt, but that's the way they are," Denham said. "I guess she (Bruscino) was a good kid, but I don't really know her. ... I had a letter, too, saying something about take it to court, but I didn't do anything about it."
A spokeswoman for the day care facility said they followed protocol and strictly adhere to state regulations that require reporting incidents such as the one involving Bruscino.
The playground is attached to the day care center's offices and not visible from South Manning Boulevard. The playground is surrounded by a chest-high chain-link fence that's kept locked. Panoramic office windows and security cameras overlook the area.
Last November, after a hearing, an administrative law judge for the state Office of Children and Family Services denied Bruscino's request to overturn the determination that Bruscino had endangered the child. The judge's conclusion is that Bruscino should be listed on the state registry, in part, because of what could have happened. "Clearly, Caitlin was at imminent risk of harm in this situation," the decision states. "The fact that the playground was surrounded by a chain-link fence does not eliminate the risk that Caitlin could have been abducted. A person with an evil intent could have easily gotten over the fence or lured Caitlin to the fence."
The administrative judge, Susan Lyn Preston, called Bruscino's argument "not persuasive" that the child abuse report be amended to "unfounded because the event at issue was simply a mistake and an isolated incident."
"One of the purposes of the Central Register is to document isolated acts of maltreatment so that physicians, police officers, child protective agencies and other authorized individuals and agencies investigating subsequent alleged acts of maltreatment by the same subjects can determine whether there is a pattern of abuse or neglect warranting family or criminal court intervention," the judge wrote.
For Bruscino and others like her, the state registry does not differentiate between a case like hers and a parent who leaves a child at home to go on a drug binge. The state registry only tells a prospective employer the person has been "indicated." The details of the incident, state officials said, are left to the accused to explain or to provide access to the supporting documents.
According to the state Office of Children and Family Services, people who will work in day care and residential child care settings are subject to screening through the state Central Registry. The agency declined to discuss Bruscino's case, citing confidentiality rules.
"A teacher would be subject to screening through the SCR if the teacher were seeking employment at a residential school operated or supervised by the state education department or at a special act school district (which is a school associated with a residential facility for children)," an agency spokeswoman said. "A teacher in the public school system is not subject to SCR screening. There is no legal authority for a public school system to screen anyone through the SCR."
Bruscino declined to be interviewed for this story. Caitlin's parents did not respond to requests for comment.
In March, Bruscino filed an appeal of the administrative law judge's decision. The case is pending in state Supreme Court in Albany. The appeal is directed against the state Office of Children and Family Services and the state's child abuse registry. The state is represented by Robert Goldfarb of the state attorney general's office, who declined to comment.
Bruscino's attorney, Kevin A. Luibrand, like Wexler, said what happened to Bruscino could happen to any parent. "The rules used on Anne apply to parents, so if mom or dad lets little Johnny run around in a fenced-in yard alone for five minutes, Albany says they have neglected and mistreated Johnny, and child protective (services) can knock on the door and put mom and dad on the child abuse list just like it did Anne," Luibrand said.
He characterized the state as "casual and indifferent" to a situation that is threatening Bruscino's desire to become a teacher for children with special needs. Bruscino has shifted her studies away from classroom settings because the situation has left her unable to participate in courses that require her to be around young children. Luibrand said that while the state said Bruscino can explain the problem to a prospective employer, most employers probably wouldn't grant an interview because of the stigma.
Bruscino's court filings are augmented with character letters written by parents of Cloverpatch children, high school teachers from her former Washingtonville High School in Orange County and college professors.
"She was a very responsible high school student who often worked in the church nursery or helped out with crafts for the younger students in Sunday school," said Lynn R. Imperato, Bruscino's 11th-grade English teacher and an assistant principal at Washingtonville High School.
"It is an unfortunate situation that Annie now finds herself," wrote Dawn Girton, a special education teacher at Washingtonville High School. "I am sure the circumstances of this incident will be resolved in Annie's favor. I would strongly recommend Annie Bruscino for a job in any educational setting."
Wexler said cases like Bruscino's were not the intent of the 1985 law that implemented the child-abuse registry. "Pretending this is child abuse is a far bigger mistake than Ms. Bruscino's honest error," he said.
Reach Lyons at 454-5547 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Albany Times Union
The replacement for Anne Bruscino:
Addendum: Reinstated by a court.
Court restores dream of teaching
Decision lets young woman take back her future after Albany day-care misstep
ALBANY -- A midlevel appeals court effectively restored a young woman's bid for a teaching career in a ruling that will remove her name from a child-abuse registry for briefly leaving a toddler on a playground.
The case stems from a decision by the state Office of Children and Family Services to list Anne Bruscino, 22, as "indicated" for child neglect on the Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment.
The agency's decision followed an investigation that found Bruscino, then a college honors student working part-time at an Albany day-care center, endangered a 3-year-old girl left alone in a fenced playground for about five minutes.
The state appellate panel's decision underscores what some critics say is an inherently rigid system that can leave a person listed on a child-abuse registry for arguably minor errors involving children.
"It was a very difficult thing for me; it threw my future off course," Bruscino said in an interview Saturday. "It's hard to believe that it did happen and that all of this has taken almost three years. It's definitely eye-opening ... how one moment in your life can change things."
The fallout led Bruscino to shift her studies to psychology because of the uncertainty of what could have been revealed through a background check in the teaching sector. Now, Bruscino said, she intends to pursue a master's degree in speech therapy and resume her dream of teaching.
Bruscino was attending the College of Saint Rose in Albany and working part-time at Cloverpatch Day Care Center on South Manning Boulevard when the incident unfolded in October 2008.
Records show Bruscino and another former Cloverpatch worker, Frances Denham of Ravena, were watching seven children when one of the toddlers urgently needed to use a bathroom. The women hurried the group in from the secluded playground that is fenced and attached to the rear of the building. A child suddenly darted away to greet an arriving parent. Bruscino, distracted by the little boy who ran from the group, didn't perform a required head count as they filed in from the playground.
Moments later, Bruscino realized her mistake and rushed outside to find a 3-year-old girl unharmed and accompanied by a teacher who had spotted the child alone.
"I was upset," Bruscino told a judge at a hearing two years ago at the Office of Children and Family Services. "I realized she must be on the playground and I ran out to the playground and found her with another teacher. ... She was not crying. She was not injured. I asked her if she was OK. She said she was fine."
Bruscino told a supervisor what happened and the child's parents were notified. Under protocol officials at Cloverpatch, which is operated by the Center for Disability Services, filed a report and a child-protective caseworker opened an investigation. Three months later, Bruscino was fired and her name added to the child-abuse registry.
She and her parents hired attorney Kevin A. Luibrand and fought back. But in November 2009 an administrative law judge determined Bruscino had endangered the toddler, whose name is listed in court records only as "Caitlin."
Luibrand argued in court that Bruscino committed a minor error that did not endanger the child. He said the state's decision could jeopardize Bruscino's teaching ambition because a person listed on the registry may stay there for up to 25 years. The administrative judge, Susan Lyn Preson, concluded the state agency made the right decision, in part, because of what could have happened.
"Clearly, Caitlin was at imminent risk of harm in this situation," the judge wrote. "The fact that the playground was surrounded by a chain-link fence does not eliminate the risk that Caitlin could have been abducted. A person with an evil intent could have easily gotten over the fence or lured Caitlin to the fence."
But in a recent ruling a five-judge panel for the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court in Albany unanimously overturned Preston.
"The record reveals that the child was left unattended by (Bruscino) for no more than six minutes, at which point (Bruscino) discovered the child physically, mentally and emotionally unharmed in the care of a day-care employee," the panel's decision states. "Under the particular facts of this case, we conclude that insufficient evidence exists to support the finding that (Bruscino's) conduct fell below a minimum degree of care and placed the child in imminent danger of harm."
Luibrand said he has seen at least four similar cases in the past two years.
"She lost a year of her life for no reason and there's a pattern within child protective services and the department of social services to use these child protection laws to get after simple, small mistakes made by teachers, daycare workers and others," Luibrand said. "They inflate the acts into something serious. ... It was never the intention of the legislature to make people who make, at worst, minor mistakes subject to being placed on the child-abuse registry."
Susan Steele, a spokeswoman for the Office of Children and Family Services, said: "We take every allegation of child abuse and neglect seriously and carefully weigh the evidence consistent with the law. We are carefully reviewing the decision and will implement changes as necessary."
Source: Albany Times Union