A Lancaster child-care center operator whose two foster sons died of heat exposure was arrested and held on suspicion of child cruelty Wednesday as authorities tried to determine why no one noticed the children sitting in a sweltering sport utility vehicle next to the center for more than five hours.
Leslie Sue Smoot, 48, was booked at the Lancaster sheriff's station late Tuesday, and bail was set at $100,000, said Lt. Al Grotefend of the sheriff's homicide unit. County prosecutors said Wednesday they had yet to see the detectives' report, but would consider filing manslaughter charges.
Coroner's officials identified the boys as 3-year-old Nehemiah Prince and his 5-year-old brother, Dakota Prince, and said autopsies would be performed as early as today.
Smoot told detectives that she left the boys in the SUV outside A Child's Place preschool after they arrived about 9 a.m. Tuesday and discovered them five hours later.
The 5-year-old was dead and his brother, suffering from severe dehydration, died a short time later at a hospital. Smoot told investigators that she thought someone else was going to bring the children in, Grotefend said. She also told them she forgot to retrieve them.
It is not clear if the children were enrolled at the school and would have been missed by other workers.
The events shocked clients of the center and its neighbors, who described Smoot as a long-time child-care provider who was a friendly, religious woman devoted to children and her profession.
Officials with the Trinity Children and Family Services Agency, a foster care group that certifies foster parents, said that Smoot and her husband, Larry, have cared for 35 foster children over the last nine years, including the brothers who died Tuesday. The Smoots were most recently certified in April, said Trinity spokeswoman Frances Larose.
"According to our records, there's nothing that would put Trinity on notice that these children were receiving anything but the highest quality of care," Larose said. "We're all just shocked."
Leslie Smoot's sister, Barbara, would only say: "It's horrible. There's no word's for what happened. She's been in this business for 20 years. This is terrible."There have been some complaints about the preschool.
The Smoots obtained a license to operate A Child's Place at 44405 N. Fig Ave. in 1996, said Blanca Castro, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services. The school had a capacity of 19 children. Three years later, A Child's Place received a license for an infant center with room for five babies.
In September 1998, a parent complained about an alleged lack of supervision at the preschool, saying children with wet diapers had been left in a crib and others were sleeping without blankets and pillows. Castro said that a state licensing analyst visited the center but, finding no proof, judged the complaint "inconclusive."
Three months later, the county health department filed a complaint about "severe physical plant deficiencies," including broken windows, faulty toilets and torn carpets, at the preschool. This time, the complaint was substantiated, Castro said.
In July 1999, investigators responded to another complaint about a lack of supervision and found that a teacher had left four children unattended. Two weeks later, a complaint that a 2-year-old child had been spanked was found to be inconclusive. Staff members denied the allegation.
In August 2000, the state cited the preschool for failing to fingerprint a worker. Investigators also found that a former employee with a suspended driver's license had been transporting children, Castro said.
Smoot opened another preschool nearby, at 44409 N. Fig Ave., in June 2001. This one, called A Child's Place Learning Center, was licensed to care for 22 children, Castro said.
And less than three months ago, on April 15, Smoot obtained a fourth state license to run a child-care center, an after-school program for children ages 5 to 12. Located at 1233 W. Avenue J-8 in Lancaster, it was licensed to serve 24 children.
A Child's Place remained closed Wednesday and state investigators were reviewing conditions at the Smoots' other facilities to determine whether they will remain open. Authorities also have removed the Smoots' other foster child and biological child from their home.
Castro added that, as a foster parent, Smoot drew two complaints within the last two years for allegedly yelling at children and letting their hair go unkempt. Both complaints were judged to be unfounded, she said.
Trinity officials said that Nehemiah and Dakota had been placed with the Smoots in March. Information about the boys' biological parents was not released.
David Sanders, director of the county's Department of Children and Family Services, said Wednesday his agency is investigating the events and petitioning the presiding judge of the juvenile court to release records about the boys.
"I need to have better information right now about how we ensure that the selection of the homes we use is adequate," he said. "From what I've seen so far, I don't know that I can say that."
Employees and some parents who use the Smoots' child-care centers expressed support.
"Some people would do something like this and you would say you weren't surprised. But with [the Smoots], it's a total surprise, a real shocker," said CeCe Bryan, 26, a child-care worker at the Smoots' after-school center who also sends her son to the preschool. "They are family-oriented and very religious. I can't believe this would happen to them."
Elizabeth Torres, 35, was picking up her 6-year-old daughter at the site and said the girl had attended the Smoots' centers since she was an infant.
"They were friendly and flexible. It's a fluke accident. I intend to keep my daughter here," she said.
But the operator of another child-care center said she was saddened and perplexed.
"We just don't understand," said Earlene Johns, director of the Sonshine Factory day-care center, about three miles from A Child's Place. A preschool's first priority, she said "is the safety of all these kids under our care. We know we have to be with children at all times and not leave them alone. We also know that we live in a desert area, and that you can't leave kids in your car for a second. That's something that's always stressed."
Times staff writers Karima Haynes, Carla Rivera, Wendy Thermos and Richard Winton contributed to this report.