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Lodi woman arraigned on accusations of leaving children strapped in car seats in closets

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Posted: Friday, August 31, 2012 11:42 am | Updated: 6:17 am, Sat Sep 1, 2012.

A Lodi daycare provider accused of leaving children in darkened closets strapped into car seats is facing 26 misdemeanor counts, including child endangerment, child abuse and forgery.

While Dorothy "Dottie" Bernhoft did not attend an arraignment on the charges Friday morning, at least 25 parents who had children in her care did.

Bernhoft faces 24 counts of cruelty to a child by endangering their health, one count of child abuse and one count of forgery. Bernhoft's attorney Joel Perisho asked the arraignment to be continued until Oct. 3 at 9:30 a.m.

The California Department of Social Services has also permanently prohibited Bernhoft from working in any licensed child care facility.

The charges and the child care ban are a result of officers from the Department of Social Services spending more than four hours during an unannounced visit on Jan. 27 searching through Bernhoft's home, where she ran the daycare, in the 2300 block of Woodlake Circle.

Officers said they found infants without supervision crying and buckled in 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. Four other children were in their car seats inside of cribs in darkened bedrooms, the report stated.

Inspectors also wrote that radios were playing throughout the house, making it difficult for Bernhoft to hear the infants or children crying or calling for their moms.

San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Kristine Reed said she filed the charges based on the 10 children found in Bernhoft's home on Jan. 27. She also included seven other children who were in Bernhoft's care from July 2011 to July 2012. The 17 children range in age from 6 months to 5 years old, but most were under the age of 4, Reed said.

Each of the 26 counts carries a maximum sentence of one year. Reed said she is focused on the probation period, and making sure there are restrictions on Bernhoft's ability to care for children.

"My goal at the end of the day is to make sure she is not watching any more children," she said.

Bernhoft was charged with misdemeanors because felonies are for actions that could result in great bodily injury or death, Reed explained. Child endangerment is "an omission of care" that could cause harm or mental suffering.

"There's a duty of care owed to a child when you are taking care of them," Reed said.

Because there are so many counts, Perisho told Judge Lauren Thomasson he needed more time to go through the counts and documents.

"It is a lengthy case, as you can tell by the size of the complaint," Perisho said.

Perisho said previously he would not comment on the case.

Outside of the courtroom, Reed addressed the parents waiting and explained the rest of the process. She thanked the parents for showing up at the arraignment because it sends a clear message to Bernhoft's attorney that they plan to follow the case.

The Department of Social Services also has taken action against Bernhoft.

In addition to leaving the children in the car seats, investigators said 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 said.

While restrained, some of the children ate insulation from their car seat, the report said. The kids were able to reach plastic dry cleaner bags, cleaning materials, medication, scissors and knives.

Bernhoft was also caring for too many children. Bernhoft was licensed to care for eight children in her home, but instead had nine infants and one child over the age of 2 in her care.

Officials said Bernhoft's assistant Connie Duff was not fingerprinted or licensed to work in a daycare facility, and was left alone with the children.

During the inspection in January, Bernhoft agreed to give up her state license, and later said she did not plan to file an appeal, spokesman Michael Westin said.

But Westin said the department still wanted to move forward with a lifetime ban to prevent Bernhoft from caring for children at any of the state's licensed facilities. The ban was agreed to and approved on Feb. 21.

"You can give up your license, but that's not enough for us. We are going to take the further action to make sure you are not a threat to our clients," he said.

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com. Read her blog at www.lodinews.com/blogs/citybuzz.

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