Lessons from Creative Frontiers School: Social Services and Police Timing of Arrests, Press Releases, Parental Notification

 

It wasn’t exactly a burning building into which armed officers rushed on July 18, in suburban Citrus Heights. It was a little cottage-style schoolhouse, 35-years old but still very much intact and not on fire, sitting on a bucolic seven-acres set back from the highway, a progressive preschool and elementary school with a big palm tree in the courtyard and windows overlooking fields, a playground, swimming, horses, even goats and rabbits and the random stray…. Summer classes were in session, more fun than anything, and indeed all seemed well enough. Whatever social services and police had been led to believe, one thing would soon be clear: no children at the school had any complaints.

Unfortunately for all involved, police and social services had already sent out press releases….

Part One: Immediate Risk

On Thursday 14 July 2011, citing an “immediate health and safety risk” to children enrolled at Creative Frontiers School, the State of California Department of Social Services, wrote a letter to parents of Creative Frontiers students, stating that a Temporary Suspension Order was being served at their school.

Signed by Kathy Ertola, Social Services Regional Manager, the letter bore the Department logo and the name of its Director, Will Lightbourne, as well as the seal of California Governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr.

Read more posts on Robert Adams and Creative Frontiers:

This “immediate health and safety risk” to the children would be revealed to include allegations of numerous incidents of child molestation by the school’s principal, Robert Adams. According to social services, these incidents dated back fifteen years and, according to their witness, had been “brushed aside” by the school’s office manager, Cynthia Higgins,1 as well as ignored by social services themselves.2

What the the letter from social services did not state–although its own 3-page list of allegations makes it clear by omission–is that no alleged victims had confirmed the allegations, and that the allegations had not come from children at all. Nor did the letter emphasize that none of the allegations were reported at the time they were supposed to have occurred. Nor did it emphasize that these allegations were a combination of hearsay and the accusations of their “only witness,” one Irma Mertens, an ex-volunteer at Creative Frontiers, who contacted social services after she was passed over for paid employment at the school,3 and who would quickly impeach her statements to authorities in a series of newspaper and television interviews in which she embellished and contradicted her original allegations.4

If social services took the allegations seriously, the Temporary Suspension Order is no indication. The July 14th letter, citing this “immediate” risk, stated that the suspension would not not take effect for another four days.

Moreover, July 14th’s immediate risk turned out to be nothing of the sort: Creative Frontiers parents would not even receive this letter.

Only media would receive the letter. They wouldn’t receive it until Monday the 18th, however, when they would receive a full press packet from authorities. Included in the packet, along with the social services paperwork, would be a press release from Citrus Heights Police Department.

The press release from Citrus Heights Police would also boldly announce, “To date [July 18], detectives have identified multiple victims,” and that “All of the alleged victims who have come forward are current or former students.” (The words and phrases, “multiple” and “all” and “come forward” seemed very serious indeed, and this blog will explore these phrases in the next few posts.)

On the Thursday the 14th, however, four days prior to the big press packet, when social services wrote their first letter citing this supposed immediate health and safety risk to children, the Creative Frontiers campus remained open.

The school remained open on the 15th as well, for the several dozen elementary and preschool children enrolled in summer sessions.

Creative Frontiers also remained open that Friday night, as elementary students gathered at the campus for the annual summer campout, blissfully unaware, as were their parents, of the immediate risk.

Unaware, too, that the “focus” of investigation himself was at the campout.

According to a Creative Frontiers teacher, Adams made a much-appreciated appearance. Though Adams doesn’t spend the night at the annual campouts, over the years he’s “helped with set up, activities, cooking throughout the evening.” On July 15th, Adams’ brought his granddaughter. And his guitar. “For the kids,” said the teacher, “because they always look forward to ‘Mr. Bob’ playing his guitar.”5

On Saturday the 16th, children, parents, and some Creative Frontiers teachers awoke with the morning sun, and a camp-style breakfast.

Sunday, it was quiet at Creative Frontiers, but for the ambling of horses and goats on the 7-acre campus, and cars from a nearby church that uses the Creative Frontiers parking lot for overflow.

Monday the 18th, of course, looked very different. Following the Citrus Heights Police Department’s big press release, Monday was indeed the very picture of “immediate risk.”

And it was that picture that would fill TV sets and Internet browsers from Citrus Heights to Boston to the U.K. Fresh at the beginning of the week’s news cycle, the street outside Creative Frontiers was abuzz with newspaper and television reporters.

The majority of parents were not contacted by authorities. Many heard about it on the news. Others arrived at the campus to pick up their child at their usual times. For some it 4 p.m., others 4:30. Some arrived even later.

The Citrus Heights Police press release, however, was more than timely. In all caps, it announced “SCHOOL CLOSURE / CHILD MOLEST INVESTIGATION.”

The press release arrived in media office hours before Creative Frontiers parents knew a thing.

The press release was marked 1:30.

Many parents arrived in the thick of the chaos. Many arrived to find their child’s school an apparent crime scene. There was a police blockade and a media frenzy.

Among the number of parents who hadn’t yet heard the news reports–that their child’s school was now the apparent scene of sexual abuses that allegedly had been happening right under staffs’ and parents’ noses for some fifteen years–most of those parents were convinced, with a sudden crippling nausea, that they were about to hear the very worst. . . .

Only four days later, a gunman in Oslo, Norway, would shoot and kill sixty-nine people at a prestigious private summer camp; fifty of them between the ages of eighteen and fourteen.

On July 18th in Citrus Heights, however, parents were “lucky.” The big media event was, in every sense of the phrase, only a false alarm.

Part Two: “We don’t have a timeline”

We don’t have a timeline. We’ll take as much time as necessary. . . .
–Citrus Heights Police Spokesman Jon Kempf, 19 July 20116

Indeed, ideas of “time” and “timing” and “timelines” take on all sorts of meanings, in what has passed for a “case” against Robert Adams and Creative Frontiers. Not only is the case the first “big one” for California Social Services’s new million-dollar Director, Will Lightbourne, but it has become, to my knowledge, the longest investigation, of alleged-multi-victim molestations, to be declared far and wide in the media before such time as an arrest was even a possibility.

One thing is certain: Monday, 15 August 2011, will mark the four-week anniversary of the Creative Frontiers debacle.

To date, Citrus Heights Police have made no arrests, filed no charges against Bob Adams or anyone else at Creative Frontiers. Nor have police produced any evidence, whatsoever, that crimes have even occurred.

Beginning with the next post on Creative Frontiers, this blog will begin, at last, to examine this stunning absence of a case against Robert Adams and Creative Frontiers: the amorphous prosecution itself, its unfortunate star witness, a list of allegations with no dates or victims, and the ongoing attempts by Citrus Heights Police to solicit new accusations from a very old pool–a handful of disgruntled ex-employees along with thirty-odd parents sued for non-payment of tuition over the years.

All of which, of course, is set against a backdrop of thirty-five years and thousands of children and families, as well as teachers, who are grateful and dedicated to both Creative Frontiers and the man who was its founder and its heart.

In the meantime, before leaping into the evidential abyss, this post serves as the last of a series of preludes. I confess: I actually believed that Citrus Heights Police and the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office, by now, would have seized this historic opportunity not to drag all of California down a road so well traveled, and in such shame, by the Bakersfield, Kern County, and McMartin Preschool trials–which, lest anyone forget, not only cost California millions in legal fees and lawsuits following dozens of vacated and overturned convictions, but shattered the lives of the innocent accused as well as those of their families.

Not to mention (for justice, surely, rather than appearances and politics, is the primary concern of authorities), those wrongful convictions also shattered the lives of every taxpayer and voter who so much as liked the accused.

Over the last four weeks, since shutting down Creative Frontiers and commencing a fruitless search for evidence of crime or victim, the prosecution–whomever else it may include, behind the wall of silence that is the Sacramento DA’s office–has succeeded in one thing, for sure: They have delayed the investigation long enough to force the parents of Creative Frontiers students to enroll their children in other schools.

Parent M__ (who also did not ask to be anonymous) fairly sums up at least a few of the questions on the minds of hundreds of parents–as expressed in major media as well as in the Creative Frontiers Facebook group:

Why couldn’t the school have remained open under someone else’s direction? I’m sure Mr. Bob would have agreed to stay off the school grounds during the hours the school is open until the investigation is completed. There should be a way to let the teachers, children, and parents have their school back without compromising an open investigation.7

Nor is M__ alone in her questions about what seems to be Citrus Heights Police detectives’ presumption of guilt in this case–if not an effort to break the morale of Creative Frontiers supporters: “Why would Citrus Heights Police tell the teachers they were out of a job?” asks M. “Why would they tell parents who call in that the school will not reopen?”8

Few want to believe that the investigative delay itself is intentional, but it is difficult to overlook its advantages to the prosecution. Adams’s income is cut off at the same time that he faces staggering legal fees. The teachers are now unemployed and must take jobs elsewhere. Most importantly, parents of Creative Frontiers students are forced to enroll their children elsewhere. Thus, both Adams’s means to defend himself, along with his primary supporters, have been taken away not only by the actions of social services and Citrus Heights Police, but by their inactions, by their very inability to mount anything approaching an actual case.

By contrast, the last four weeks have seen, from Adams’s and Creative Frontiers’s supporters, complete with local and national media coverage, ceaseless activities in a desperate attempt to help both Adams and Creative Frontiers. In addition to the seemingly endless stream of supporters’ comments on the Creative Frontiers Facebook group, there have been not one but two rallies by Creative Frontiers students and their parents. A yard sale. A car wash. A potluck dinner. Movie night. 280 signatures collected in under 48 hours to petition to the city reopen the school, delivered to Citrus Heights Mayor Jeannie Bruins. Testimony from parents and children alike–as well as from Bob Adams’ three grown daughters–delivered before Bruins and Citrus Heights City Council: testimony both in support of principal Bob Adams and Creative Frontiers, and expressing concern with armed police officers having shut down the school and executed a search warrant in the middle of preschool and elementary summer sessions.

There can be no doubt that it was the pursuit of this country’s most noble cause–the safety of its children–that inspired Sacramento County and Citrus Heights authorities to action, to pursue even vague, seemingly timeless, and wholly uncorroborated allegations in a manner best described by any number cliches: They pulled out all the stops. Threw caution to the wind. Dove in headfirst, etc. Where children are involved, who would want anything less?

That said, it wasn’t exactly a burning building into which armed officers rushed on July 18, in suburban Citrus Heights. It was a little cottage-style schoolhouse, 35-years old but still very much intact and not on fire, sitting on a bucolic seven-acres set back from the highway, a preschool and elementary school with a big palm tree in the courtyard and windows overlooking fields, a playground, swimming, horses…”even goats and rabbits!” Preschool and elementary summer classes were in session, and indeed all seemed well enough. One thing is certain: whatever social services and police may have been led to believe, no children at the school had any complaints.

Nor did their parents, who also had no idea what what was transpiring in their absence as social services and armed Citrus Heights Police officers descended on the school.

Mistakes have been made in the handling of the Creative Frontiers case. Few people will argue otherwise. Issues of “timing” rank low among these mistakes, except for this question: whether social services, Citrus Heights Police, and the Sacramento District Attorney’s office will waste any more time pursuing a false case–i.e., how much longer they will wait to issue a press release saying what the public  already knows:

We, the California Department of Social Services, and the Citrus Heights Police Department, did our jobs. We had nothing but the children’s best interest in mind. We were led astray by at least one adult who took advantage of laws designed to protect children. Unfortunately, these things happen. We have no evidence to indicate that Robert Adams is guilty of any crimes.

________________________________________

1 Sam Stanton. “Former receptionist details abuse allegations against school principal.” Sacramento Bee. 19 July 201. http://www.sacbee.com/2011/07/19/v-mobile/3780117/sacto-9-1-1-former-receptionist.html

2 Ibid.

3 “I find it interesting, the timing on it,” Robert Adams’s attorney, Linda Parisi, told KCRA TV. [“Accused Principal: ‘I’m Innocent.’ Citrus Heights School Leader Denies Molesting Students” KCRA TV. July 20, 2011. http://www.kcra.com/r/28611879/detail.html]

In response to questions about the timing of her allegations, Mertens flatly lied, again, telling KCRA reporters, “When I started finding out about that stuff, I don’t [sic] want to work for this guy.” According to social services reports and Mertens other public statements, however, Mertens had already claimed to have witnessed abuse first-hand over a year before the July 2011 shut down of the school.[“Accused Principal: ‘I’m Innocent.’ Citrus Heights School Leader Denies Molesting Students” KCRA TV. July 20, 2011. http://www.kcra.com/r/28611879/detail.html]

See also, this interesting, if disturbing interview with Mertens

4 Such as providing sudden new “details” such as watching Adams 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. [Nick Monacelli “Father: State was told principal was suspected of molesting students” News 10 Jul 19, 2011 ]

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 leg. 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 Personal communication with the author.

6 Sheila V. Kumar. “Calif. principal denies molestation allegations.” Associated Press. 19 July 2011. http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gbHTjZx_Ob6Al2bfcrcnZ0vhJ3rA?docId=b34f323b034946a892be227c575dea5a

7 Personal communication with the author.

8 Ibid.

2016-10-29T06:38:18+00:00