Day-Care Center Shut; State Widens Investigation : Molestation: A second man is charged. Closing of the Echo Park facility catches parents unprepared.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

State regulators Monday ordered the immediate closure of a city-run day-care center in Echo Park where two former workers have been accused of molesting children.

The Department of Social Services said the action was taken because officials perceived an "immediate danger" to children at the facility. Eight other state-subsidized day-care centers operated by the city also are under investigation because they have the same licensee, officials said.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles city attorney on Monday filed misdemeanor charges of molestation, lewd conduct and indecent exposure against Simon Bermudez, 37, of Los Angeles, a former recreational aide at the Echo Park Recreation Center day-care facility.

Eight felony counts of lewd conduct with children already also have been filed against Charles Chavez, 33, of Los Angeles, who once drove a van for the center.

Both men were fired last month after five children made the allegations to Los Angeles police. Two other children later came forward with similar accounts.

The state's order required the day-care center to cease operations at 5 p.m. Monday because of conduct "inimical to the health, welfare and safety of the children."

The action, according to department legal counsel Daniel Garcia, grew out of the allegations of molestation as well as a long list of other violations of the state Health and Safety Code and departmental rules.

Garcia said the order will remain in effect until an administrative law judge hears the case, probably in January. At that time, he said, the agency will seek to have the center's 14-month-old license revoked for at least two years.

Linda Brough, director of the Echo Park Recreation Center, where the day-care facility is located, said workers began notifying parents of the closure about noon Monday. Many of them, she said, "were disappointed."

"It's putting great hardship on them to have to find child care in 24 hours," Brough said.

Most of the families served by the center are poor; some paid as little as $40 a month for a service that can cost $250 a month elsewhere, she said. The facility was licensed to serve 49 children.

Some parents seemed bewildered about the closure order when they arrived Monday afternoon to pick up their children.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," said Marta Dorantes of Silverlake, a shoe factory worker and mother of a 6-year-old girl. "I'm going to have to quit work so I can stay home and take care of her."

Michelle Stover, whose 8-year-old son, Salvador, attends the center, appeared angry.

"As far as I'm concerned, two hours' notice is not enough," she said. "We're Echo Park. We're low income. We're low on the totem pole. If this were Beverly Hills, they would have fixed this up right away."

Mayor Tom Bradley said in a letter Monday to Recreation and Parks chief Jim Hadaway that he was "shocked and dismayed" to learn of the suspension. Bradley ordered Hadaway to "immediately comply" with state requirements and identify another agency that can operate the program if his department is unable to.

Councilwoman Gloria Molina and officials of the Recreation and Parks Department told about 40 parents at a meeting Monday evening that the city would help them find alternative day-care facilities. The city will also provide money to parents if their alternative centers charge more than the Echo Park facility, said Art Gastelum, principal administrative coordinator for Bradley's office.

Besides the molestation allegations, the state accused the center of failing to verbally report the molestation accusations to the Department of Social Services within 24 hours and failing to report them in writing within seven days. The center also was accused of not providing adequate bathroom facilities and not separating children from other visitors to the park, Garcia said.

One of its most serious offenses, he said, was failing to fingerprint employees for background checks before they were hired.

A police investigation showed that neither of the suspects were fingerprinted before they were allowed to work with children. Police contend that a thorough background check on Chavez would have shown he had a criminal record involving lewd behavior with a prostitute.

Chavez was arrested last month and charged with four felony counts of lewd behavior with two girls, ages 5 and 10, who said he had fondled them. Four other counts were lodged against him last week after a 5-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister made similar allegations. He is being held on $20,000 bail.

Bermudez was also arrested last month, but was released after posting $5,000 bail. On Monday, he was charged with two counts of child molestation, two counts of indecent exposure and three counts of performing a lewd act in front of children, said Deputy City Atty. Alice Hand. The misdemeanor charges, she said, involve three children who accused Bermudez of either fondling or urinating in front of them.

Disclosures earlier this month that Chavez and Bermudez had not had their backgrounds checked touched off heated complaints from Molina and parents of children in the day-care program. In response, city officials ordered the immediate fingerprinting of 2,000 part-time workers in the Recreation and Parks Department.

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