Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Laura Macias used "cruel, harsh, unusual or extreme techniques” on children. This story has been updated to reflect that the incident involved one child.
EDGEWOOD, Ky. -- Two people who worked for Rainbow Child Care centers have been criminally charged.
One already was convicted. Anne Marie Ogonek entered an Alford plea last year in Kentucky, maintaining her innocence but admitting the prosecution had enough evidence to convict her of misdemeanor child abuse. A Kenton County judge initially denied the plea in July, but court records show the judge accepted the plea in October.
But police and social workers told the WCPO I-Team it's not always easy to make a criminal case -- even if state agencies take action against a center. And when it does happen, there's no way to tell how often because state agencies don't track the specific circumstances of who did the abusing or where it occurred.
Edgewood Police Officer Julie Marzheuser, a detective who investigated Ogonek, sees children as "our most vulnerable victims."
"They aren't able to be their own witnesses in some cases, and I think some people know that," Marzheuser said.
Surveillance video proved key
The case against Ogonek began when parents of a toddler, just 14 months old, brought their concerns to the Edgewood Police Department. Kathy McFarland, the day care center director, had told the parents Ogonek covered their son's head with a blanket "in an attempt to get him to nap."
The center had surveillance footage from the room. The I-Team has now obtained the entire police file on Ogonek's investigation, including surveillance footage.
In court records, Marzheuser wrote it showed Ogonek "forced him to stay laying (sic) down with the blanket covering his head and face by holding down with her hand on the back of his head and neck area." She also said Ogonek pulled the boy's legs out from under him when he tried to move, and it was apparent he was crying and shaking.
Marzheuser reviewed eight days' worth of surveillance footage, her complaint said, and saw "numerous other incidents" involving Ogonek, the 14-month-old boy and several other toddlers.
The detective said footage showed Ogonek "roughly grabbing and pulling the children by one arm/hand across the room, aggressively flipping the children over on their mats by their arms and legs, roughly grabbing and pulling them into 'time out' and leaving them in 'time out' for an excessive period of time" including one child left for an hour and 10 minutes.
Ogonek also dumped a child out of a chair, pushed a child away with her foot, left one child in a high chair for nearly an hour and forced several children to lay down with their heads covered with a blanket, Marzheuser wrote.
Rainbow Child Care released this statement about the surveillance video:
"The images in the video are as deeply disturbing today as they were when this incident occurred in 2016. That’s why we took immediate action at that time to notify the child’s parents, terminate the individual’s employment, and self-report the incident to state regulators. We will never tolerate behavior that threatens the safety of the children in our care. We will also not allow the deplorable actions of a few former employees represent the exceptional work of our caregivers at centers in Northern Kentucky and around the country. We will continue to take every action we can to ensure we provide a safe and caring environment for all of our children."
Three sets of parents have now filed separate lawsuits -- two of them in county court, the other in federal court -- against Ogonek, Rainbow Child Care and Kameelah Nolan, a former employee who worked with Ogonek but was not criminally charged. A fourth family filed a claim with Rainbow's insurance company and settled for $48,500.
All were tied to incidents at the Edgewood facility involving Ogonek and Nolan. Rainbow Child Care fired both women in September 2016.
Marzheuser said surveillance footage can be critical.
"People might not always believe kids," she said. "So, it makes it very hard to work a case like this, especially when you're dealing with very young kids who can't even talk yet."
Rainbow Child Care provided this statement:
"While we do not comment on civil cases or pending litigation, Rainbow previously addressed these incidents when they occurred in 2016 and 2017. We also self-reported these incidents to the state, and took a number of additional steps, including staff retraining, disciplinary action and the implementation of a quality improvement plan. As we said then, the safety and well-being of the children in our care is our highest priority. We continue to evaluate and update our practices and procedures to ensure we meet the high standards we set for child safety in our centers."
In court filings, attorneys for the company, Ogonek and Nolan denied the families' claims.
‘Lots of people coming at you’
Marzheuser has spent her career in law enforcement: She's been with Edgewood for eight years and worked for the Kenton County Police Department before that.
She couldn't talk with us about the Ogonek case itself. But she did say she's had a "small number" of child abuse cases involving day care centers.
"Child abuse, whether it's physical or sexual, can happen anywhere," she said. "The city or an area doesn't change that."
Cases can get to police in a variety of ways: from parents who find strange bruising or marks, from the Northern Kentucky Children's Advocacy Center, or from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. In Ohio, county and state Job and Family Service agencies can refer cases, too.
When a day care center is involved, the stakes are higher. Police want to be sure they've got a solid case -- that something bad really happened -- when the company's reputation is on the line.
"There's a lot that goes into it," Marzheuser said. "There’s the protection of the business aspect of it. We’ve got the community we want to worry about, we've got the kids we want to worry about, so it definitely magnifies the case."
The state of Kentucky started its own investigation into Rainbow Child Care around the same time Marzheuser was preparing the criminal case against Ogonek.
Inspectors showed up, unannounced, at Rainbow's 13 facilities in Northern Kentucky within the span of two weeks. The I-Team was first to report that nearly half of those centers were placed under "intermediate sanctions" because of what the inspectors found. Susan Hayes, Division of Regulated Child Care director, described it as a last-ditch effort to get them in compliance.
All have since come back into compliance, according to state records.
In Hamilton County, Job and Family Services Director Moira Weir sees several cases involving day care centers each month -- "already we maybe have 40 so far this year," she said.
Weir's agency determined only about five of those cases truly involved child abuse and required further action. It handles the social services part of the case and presents its finding to the state of Ohio, to decide if a center's license should be revoked.
A special unit within Weir's agency handles investigations into day care centers. They typically have a smaller case load, Weir said, and it's a challenge to sift through what happened.
"Oftentimes when you enter into a situation, whether you’re going to someone's home or a center, there’s lots of people coming at you with information," she said.
What parents can do
JFS also sends cases to the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office, which decides if criminal charges are appropriate.
Those criminal cases can take a long time to investigate, Marzheuser said. They're not always clear-cut with an obvious crime. Detectives have to spend time building a case, which is harder when the victim can't communicate what happened to them -- "or even understand what happened to be able to communicate that," she said.
To help spot abuse, Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, now called Norton Children's Hospital, developed a "TEN 4 Rule." It stands for torso, ears, neck, 4 years and younger. A child that age typically won't have bruising in those areas of their body, so marks in those areas could indicate abuse.
The bar is higher for detectives like Marzheuser than it is for state agencies. Sometimes, in the end, there's not enough evidence to bring criminal charges -- but parents can still report their concerns to the state.
Marzheuser's advice: Listen. Look for changes in the child's attitude or behavior. Document everything. And consider taking the child to a different day care center.
"A parent knows their child better than anybody else," she said. "If something doesn’t seem right, pay attention to that."