A Lodi daycare provider accused of leaving small children in darkened closets strapped into car seats for hours on end pleaded guilty to charges of child endangerment and forgery in San Joaquin County Superior Court on Friday.
Dorothy Bernhoft appeared in the courtroom with her attorney while roughly 20 parents sat in the audience awaiting the announcement.
In front of San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Brett H. Morgan, Bernhoft, through tears, entered a plea of guilty to five felony counts of child endangerment and one misdemeanor count of forgery. Bernhoft has also been ordered to pay restitution to all parents involved in the case.
After court adjourned, neither Bernhoft nor her attorney, Joel Perisho, offered comment on the decision to enter a plea deal one week before trial was set to begin.
For some of the parents in attendance, Friday was the first chance to see Bernhoft since learning of the unsettling conditions their children were exposed to.
There were 24 children involved in the case, whose ages ranged from 6 months to 4 years old. However, San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Kristine Reed said she’s certain more children were subjected to Bernhoft’s treatment.
“There are certainly a lot of families involved in this case,” she said. “Certainly people understand the parameters of the case and there are varying emotions, from wanting to see her go through a jury trial to also knowing that a resolution to the case is a resolution to the case.”
It has been more than a year since officers from the California Department of Social Services searched Bernhoft’s home, where she ran the daycare, for more than four hours during an unannounced visit.
On Jan. 27, 2012, inside the home on the 2300 block of Woodlake Circle officers found infants without supervision crying and buckled into car seats in darkened closets and a bathroom with the doors shut. In one of the closets where an infant was restrained, there were also two loaded shotguns and ammunition, according to the inspection report.
Of the 10 children present during the inspection, four were in their car seats inside of cribs in darkened bedrooms, the report states.
While restrained, some children ate insulation from their car seats and received very little food or water while in Bernhoft’s care, the report said. The children were able to reach plastic dry cleaner bags, cleaning materials, medication, scissors and knives, according to inspectors.
Investigators found that Bernhoft did not change the children’s diapers until right before their parents picked them up. She used diaper rash ointment to hide any rashes the children received from wearing the same diaper all day, the report added.
The report also stated that radios were playing throughout the house, making it difficult for Bernhoft to hear the infants or children crying or calling for their mothers.
Officials said Bernhoft’s assistant, Connie Duff, was not fingerprinted, nor was she licensed to work in a daycare facility, but was left alone with the children.
The department has permanently prohibited Bernhoft from working in any licensed child-care facility.
On Friday, Bernhoft also confessed to forging a parent’s signature on a citation, which was supposed to inform parents that the daycare licensing authorities found several violations during an inspection in December 2011.
Reed said child endangerment cases with circumstances this severe are rare.
“Something like this is the first I’ve seen of its nature,” she said. “You have young children who can’t necessarily speak up for themselves. Given their ages they cant communicate that certain things may be happening.”
Bernhoft will be sentenced on Sept. 30 at 10:30 a.m. During that time, parents will also be allowed to address the court and Bernhoft and talk about how they and their children have been affected by these incidents.
“A lot of parents are looking forward to saying their piece, and saying to the court and (Bernhoft) what they’ve all been feeling and experiencing,” Reed said. “A lot of them are wanting that opportunity.”
Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.