Although state and local authorities have seen fit to shut down Creative Frontiers based on allegations of child molestation lodged by 62-year-old ex-volunteer Irma Mertens, the actual children at Creative Frontiers, as well as their teachers and their parents, are rallying in the streets, picketing, begging authorities to re-open their beloved school.
On 18 July 2011, California’s Department of Social Services, “until further notice by Order of the Director,” Will Lightbourne, served a “Temporary Suspension Order” at Creative Frontiers school in Citrus Heights, Sacramento County, CA, while Citrus Heights police simultaneously served search warrants at Creative Frontiers and the home of its principal, Robert Adams, after social services determined there was an “immediate health and safety risk to children” at the school, citing what the agency deemed a “preponderance of evidence” of child sexual abuse.1
According to Department of Social Services documents, this preponderance was defined as hearsay2 and allegations of crimes with no fixed times, no witness, and no known victims (see Figure 1), in addition to the alleged eyewitness account of one Irma Mertens, an AARP volunteer at Creative Frontiers. As it happens, Mertens had recently been passed over for a paid position at the school.3
In a series of newspaper and television interviews immediately following her allegations, Mertens went on to embellish and contradict her original statements to authorities.4
Nonetheless, after 35 years of operation, serving around 180 students each year in grades pre-K through 6, on an idyllic seven-acre campus with cottage-style classrooms, swimming pool and playground, pastures and horses and goats, on the basis of the above allegations, Creative Frontiers was shut down.
Daycare and summer camp were in session when armed Citrus Heights police served their search warrant. When parents arrived at the campus to pick up their children, they were met by police blockade. There was, of course, no small amount of confusion. And emotion.
Citrus Heights Police were investigating “multiple allegations of child molestation,” they announced, and Principal Robert Adams is “the focus of the investigation.”5
Although local newspapers would later go out of their way to defend the actions of Sacramento County Social Services and Citrus Heights police, parents had a different view. One parent emailed and described the scene thusly:
I was one of the first parents to arrive around 2:30 p.m. The lockdown occurred sometime after lunch (1 p.m. or so). I never received a phone call that there was a problem. The officer at the side gate waved me on without comment. The officer at the front gate refused to give me information and asked me to leave unless I was there to pick up children. He reluctantly told me that the children were okay. At the front fence I had to fill out a card to prove that I was my children’s mother. Again, nobody would answer questions. I was handed the court-filed complaint. I had to wait for my children to be escorted out to me, each led by a uniformed officer and a chaplain. Each of my children was given a stuffed animal. It was probably one of the most devastating, nightmarish experiences I have ever had.
Parents expressed disbelief that anything untoward could have happened Creative Frontiers, let alone the heinous allegations leveled against the most beloved guy on campus–indeed the man who not only founded but sustained the school, for 35 years, and, still, managed to know every last child’s name, every year.
Another “Proud Creative Frontiers Parent” also wrote to me to describe the scene:
I was abruptly stopped by an officer that was basically a blockade to get into the drive near the horse corrals. . . . I pulled up to the first empty spot, grabbed my ID and ran over to the tables that were setup. I got to the table, still wasn’t told what was going on, other then the fact that the school was shutdown. . . . I filled out the yellow informational card as instructed and was then handed a sheet. I saw that it was titled “Molest Investigation.” . . . When I saw the name Robert B Adams my heart sank. I immediately knew these allegations were false. I was able to then find out that the school was shutting down indefinitely, and I was just physically ill. As a single parent the worry started flooding my mind. Not worry about what had happened at the school, but worrying about Bob, and his family, and the kids who love the school, and the amazing faculty.
As children and parents tried to make sense of what was happening, officers remained cautious, if not vague, in their responses to parents and reporters alike.
“We are going to review the evidence that was collected and based on what was found the investigation will take the next step,” said Citrus Heights police spokesman Jon Kempf. “We have made actions today to remove the children from the school to ensure their safety,” explained officer Bryan Fritsch.6
In newspapers and on TV, Citrus Heights urged “anyone with information” to call Detective Joe Rangel or the Citrus Heights Police Department’s tip line.
Area newspapers were at pains to assure the public that California was not about to undergo another McMartin Preschool trial, to assure the public that things were being handled differently.
Indeed they were. Citrus Heights Police set up a web page at the department’s main site, where anyone could report allegations against Robert Adams and Creative Frontiers with the simple click of a mouse.
Although no arrests had been made and no charges had been filed, within mere hours of the police serving warrants and notices and shuttering the preschool and elementary schools, the Creative Frontiers story went national.
FoxNews may have been the first.7 Their brief article also set the tone for much of the major-media reporting to come. “The facts and circumstances brought us to the point today where we were able to execute a search warrant,” Kempf, again, was quoted as saying. One quote from Kempf would be retyped and re-aired across the country: “Due to the sensitive nature of the investigation, we are moving slowly and cautiously, one step at a time. We’ll evaluate the results of the search and take the investigation forward from that.”
Again, all statements were guarded and vague except these: Creative Frontiers was “closed because of allegations . . . about molestation,” and “the school’s owner and principal, Robert B. Adams, is the focus of the investigation.”
From ABC in Houston, filed under “National/World” [emphasis mine]: Again, supposed multiple allegations, supposedly going back 15 years. No details provided–except, of course, that a man who had not been arrested or charged with any crimes, was, nonetheless, hereby declared a suspected child molester, for the all the Nation/World.8
Indeed, by the next morning, the names of the school and its principal were, thanks to the Daily Mail, synonymous with allegations of child molestation, as far away as in the U.K., where an anonymous staff reporter and editor decided to forgo allegations altogether, don their powdered wigs and convict: “Elementary school principal ‘molested at least 10 students over 15 year period.’”9
Now, a week after the combined social services, law enforcement, and media destruction of the names of Robert Adams and Creative Frontiers School, still no arrests have been made, and still no charges have been filed.
And to do so now will mean only that Sacramento County and Citrus Heights authorities are more interested in appearing right, than getting it right.
While it’s a nice thought, that the Creative Frontiers is being handled differently than McMartin (and Kern County, Fells Acres, Wenatchee, et al), and “I want to believe,” it is absolutely crucial that the media and the public do not rest easy on assurances from the prosecution. Certainly not while the lives of Robert Adams and Family are quietly ruined.
One thing, however, will make Creative Frontiers different: if this travesty ends now, before it makes it to a courtroom. It will be a different story from McMartin only if Joe Rangel and Citrus Heights law enforcement understand that, through no fault of their own, they were led astray not only by false allegations, but by malicious allegations. It will be a different story from McMartin only if Jan Scully and the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office refuse to sign on such this obvious PR disaster-in-the-making, refuse to repeat the mistakes that cost the state millions in legal fees and in lawsuits following overturned convictions just a generation ago, and refuse to see the further abuse of one of the most well respected and beloved families in Sacramento County.
Certainly, Joe Rangel must be a better detective than the Wenatchee fiasco’s lead Detective, Robert Perez. Certainly, neither Jan Scully nor anyone from Sacramento County District Attorney’s office wants to join the ranks of McMartin prosecutor Lael Rubin, Kern County D.A. Ed Jagels, and others who helped to make courts’ findings of “gross prosecutorial misconduct” synonymous with the sort of calamity shaping up in Citrus Heights.
As I mention in a previous post, it is also important to remember that 1) true sexual abuse of children is an all-too-real problem in the U.S. and elsewhere, and 2) it is high-profile false cases that not only deflect attention, but drain credibility from true cases, which are difficult enough to prosecute without being compared at every step to spectacles such as McMartin and, now, Citrus Heights. These cases do nothing to help already-beleaguered social workers, and they wound actual victims (who, if I need to put a fine point on it, do not march in the streets to support their abusers).
In the 1980s, “Believe the Children” was the catchphrase in these cases. Ironically, while the phrase was misused to prosecute false cases, there is no better opportunity than this one, for Citrus Heights and Sacramento County, on behalf of a much larger society, to stop giving credence to malicious adult accusers, and to believe the children instead.
The children are lining up in the streets for you. They are making signs for you. They are begging you. Please, believe the children.
1 California Department of Social Services, Temporary Suspension Order against Creative Frontiers, dated 18 July 2011, signed Jennifer Brekke, Kathy Ertola. California Department of Social Services documents CDSS 7011182101, CDSS 7011182101B, CDSS 7011182101C, dated 18 July 2011, authors Jennifer Brekke, Maria Gross, Jeanne Smith.
2 According to DSS documents, Mertens informed the department that “Between January and February 2011, the exact date and time being unknown to the Complainant, a parent complained that [a child] reported that “Mr. Bob” (RA) had touched her “pee pee.” The child herself, however, would tell authorities that she was not abused.
3 “I find it interesting, the timing on it,” Robert Adams’s attorney, Linda Parisi, told KCRA TV. In response to questions about the timing of her allegations, Mertens flatly lied, telling KCRA-TV reporters, “When I started finding out about that stuff, I don’t [sic] want to work for this guy,” even though her alleged eyewitness account took place in 2010 and she continued to volunteer until May of 2011. (“Accused Principal: ‘I’m Innocent.’ Citrus Heights School Leader Denies Molesting Students.” KCRA-TV 3. July 20, 2011 http://www.kcra.com/r/28611879/detail.html)
4 Among other things, Mertens added new, lurid, and flatly ludicrous detail–such as watching Adams, in his office in the middle of the school day, stick his thumb in a child’s rectum. “He was massaging her buttocks, and all of the sudden I saw his right thumb go in the child’s rectum,” Mertens told News 10 reporter Nick Monacelli [“Father: State was told principal was suspected of molesting students” News 10 Jul 19, 2011], though she’d failed to tell authorities anything of the sort, prior to their acting on her false allegations. Mertens would also later explain that her alleged eyewitness account echoed her own terrible abuse as a child (see (1:10) of this ABC video).
Also of note, in Monacelli’s article, are the statements of Mr. McBride, who claimed that he pulled his own daughter out of the school after a “suspicious bruise” on her thigh. What McBride failed to mention, and what none in the media bothered to investigate, is that what is most “suspicious” about McBride’s bruise story is that it follows directly on the heels of McBride’s history of waging unsuccessful legal actions (according to court documents here and here) against the school.
5 Sam Stanton. “Former receptionist details abuse allegations against school principal.” The Sacramento Bee. July 19, 2011 http://blogs.sacbee.com/crime/archives/2011/07/former-receptio.html
6 Camille Mann. “Calif. school closed in molestation probe, principal has defenders.” CBS/KOVR July 19, 2011 http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-20080809-504083.html
7 “Molestation investigation shuts California school.” AP/FoxNews. July 18, 2011 http://www.foxnews.com/us/2011/07/18/molestation-investigation-shuts-california-school/
8 “Molestation investigation shuts California school.” ABC News 13/ AP. Tuesday, July 19, 2011 http://abclocal.go.com/ktrk/story?section=news/national_world&id=8258146
9 “Elementary school principal ‘molested at least 10 students over 15 year period.’” Daily Mail. July 19, 2011. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2016546/California-school-principal-Robert-Adams-molested-10-students-15-years.html?ito=feeds-newsxml