Despite precautions, child care center faces abuse allegations against ex-employee
GRAND FORKS — The Grand Forks child care center that hired a man charged last month with sexually assaulting four children at the facility has a good record and did the proper background check before hiring the man, state officials said last week, confirming what the center’s officials said.
Still, Immanuel Christian Children’s Center retained a Bismarck attorney experienced in trying civil lawsuits after its former employee Timothy Tollefson was charged Dec. 20 in state district court in Grand Forks.
Such a case as Tollefson’s is rare.
State officials say actual cases of child abuse or neglect at child care centers in North Dakota are nearly unheard of.
Tollefson, 31, of Manvel, was charged with four counts of gross sexual imposition of a child under 15. The alleged victims are four girls who were 3 or 4 when the abuse is said to have begun four years ago.
Each count carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years if he’s convicted.
Tollefson made an initial court appearance Dec. 23. He made bail of $5,000 and was released Dec. 26 on electronic home monitoring pending his arraignment slated for March 3.
The charges allege that beginning in December 2009, nine months after he started working at Immanuel, Tollefson began sexually touching girls during nap time, continuing until November of last year.
The case broke when one of the girls told her parents that “Tim” would pull down her pants, rubbing her buttocks, and she would pull her pants up again.
According to the police affidavit, Tollefson admitted to the acts, saying he was getting sexual gratification, knew it was wrong and took measures to not be detected by surveillance cameras and other employees of the center.
Immanuel, which identifies itself as a ministry of Immanuel Lutheran Church and is part of the same building, immediately fired Tollefson when the accusations came to light in November.
Marie Remz, director of the Children’s Center, issued a statement saying care center staff and church members were “shocked and dismayed” by the charges, but privacy concerns prevented them from commenting further.
“Therefore, beyond acknowledging the sad fact that these matters have come to light, all staff and officials of Immanuel Lutheran Church and Immanuel Christian Children’s Center are not able to comment further on these matters at this time,” the statement said.
“Regardless of what unsubstantiated reports and rumors may be circulated, the appropriate social service and law enforcement agencies are continuing their efforts to fully, accurately and officially determine all relevant facts.”
Jerry Evenson, the Bismarck attorney and a certified civil trial specialist hired by Immanuel after Tollefson was accused, said the center had done its due diligence when hiring Tollefson, who had no criminal history.
“As a certified child care center, ICCC is bound to the pre-employment background check protocol established and conducted by Child Protection Services through the (state’s) Department of Human Services,” Evenson said in an email. “In addition to a pre-employment background check, Child Protection Services does annual background checks on the ICCC employees. Throughout this process, there was no evidence that came to light to indicate any cause for alarm regarding Timothy Tollefson.”
State officials confirmed this.
Jennifer Barry, administrator of early childhood services for the Human Services Department, said all child care facilities licensed in the state are required to ensure background checks are done on all employees at hiring. That includes checks against child abuse records, registered sex offender lists and state criminal court records for any problems in their background.
Any employee who has lived outside North Dakota in the past 10 years also must undergo an FBI fingerprint check, Barry said.
After the accusations against Tollefson came to light, her office double-checked on how Immanuel had done checking up on him, Barry said.
“All the appropriate checks were completed,” she said.
Actual cases of such abuse at licensed child care centers in the state hardly ever happen, state officials said.
According to Marlys Baker, administrator of Child Protection Services for the state Department of Human Services in Bismarck, there were no confirmed reports of child abuse or neglect in child care settings in the state in 2011 and 2012.
In 2012, of 1,934 total people confirmed as committing child abuse or neglect in the state, nearly all were relatives — 1,659 were parents and 78 were other relatives of the child victims — and only 86 were friends or neighbors of the child victims, Baker said.
This is consistent with national data showing that 80 percent of perpetrators of child abuse and neglect are parents of the victims and only 0.4 percent of perpetrators are child care providers, Baker said.
“Our child care centers are very safe places,” Baker said.
North Dakota is ranked fourth out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense, in an annual report by Child Care Aware of America, said Jennifer Barr, administrator of early childhood services for North Dakota’s Department of Human Services.
In the 2013 Child Care Aware report, “We Can Do Better,” North Dakota had a final score of 112, tied with Oklahoma and Texas, behind only the Pentagon’s child care centers on military bases and elsewhere and New York and Washington state, in total score and rankings for both “program requirements” and “oversight.”
Minnesota comes in 10th, with a score of 106, out of a possible 150.
The report measures how well a state regulates child care centers, both in providing good programs and ensuring the safety of children by background checks and other methods.
Immanuel has a “multiple” license under the Human Services Department, Barry said, allowing it to have up to 103 children across three categories: “child care,” “early childhood” and “school age,” or ages 5 through 12. It means they can care for children from about 6 months old up to 12 years of age, Barry said.
She said Immanuel has never had a problem with its licensing.
When investigators interviewed employees of ICCC in November and December, several said they had previous concerns about Tollefson’s behavior with children, including untoward ways he appeared to watch children while they used the bathroom.
Such employees do have certain responsibilities to report serious concerns, under state law.
All child care employees are “mandated reporters,” meaning they are legally required to report any reasonable suspicions of child abuse or neglect, Baker said.
Simply having some concerns about another employee’s behavior with children, if they don’t rise to the level of “reasonable suspicion” of actual abuse or neglect, isn’t necessarily enough to trigger a mandated report, Baker said.
“We do encourage people to kind of err on the side of caution,” Barry said. “A report doesn’t necessarily mean a situation will be investigated.”