Droves of emotional mothers and fathers stood in a San Joaquin County Superior courtroom for the long-awaited opportunity to address an elderly Lodi daycare provider who last month pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of child endangerment and forgery.
On Monday, Dorothy Bernhoft, 67, was sentenced to four years probation and 416 hours of community service, and ordered to pay restitution to the families of 24 children involved in the case, whose ages range from 6 months to 4 years old.
Bernhoft must also attend a child abuse treatment program if ordered by her probation officer, and cannot come within 100 yards of the victims, their parents and numerous places children frequent.
San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Kristine Reed and Bernhoft’s defense attorney Joel Perisho agreed to the terms prior to Monday’s hearing.
Bernhoft listened to many of the 20 parents in attendance for the sentencing hearing, some of whom fought back tears as they conveyed the horror they felt after learning their children were left in darkened closets strapped into car seats for hours on end.
Some parents talked about the guilt they felt when listening to their children cry from horrible baby rash that they thought was their fault. Others described the physical and psychological effects their children are still battling today.
“You have victimized everyone who’s touched your life,” one parent wrote in a letter read by Reed.
Following 30 minutes of victim impact speeches, Bernhoft stood up, turned toward the parents and denied any wrongdoing.
“I know that no harm was ever done to a child in my home,” she said while brushing away tears. “Your children were not left in car seats or portable cribs all day. This is simply not true.”
Bernhoft went on refute several of the findings made by the California Department of Social Services during an unannounced four-hour visit to her home on the 2300 block of Woodlake Circle in Jan. 2012.
Officers said they discovered that Bernhoft did not change the children’s diapers until minutes before 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 claimed.
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. In addition, she was caring for more children than her license allowed.
Bernhoft, with her final words, did offer an apology.
“With all my heart, I’m so sorry for any discomfort I have brought,” she said.
Before announcing the terms of Bernhoft’s sentence, presiding Judge Brett H. Morgan addressed her statement, saying, “You’re on a different planet.”
Morgan said despite his attempt to remain “emotionally neutral,” he believed she should “go to state prison.”
He added that one mother’s story during the hearing described the totality of Bernhoft’s crimes.
With tissues in one hand and her speech in the other, the young mother talked about finding horrible diaper rashes on her infant daughter.
She remembered her daughter’s screams of pain as she applied ointment to the rash, and thought they formed while in Bernhoft’s care.
So she consulted her trusted daycare provider, who instead blamed it on the mother and the sweet potatoes she fed her daughter.
“I couldn’t believe I was giving my child the rashes,” the mother said. “I cried myself to sleep. I thought I was a horrible mom.”
The mother said she later saw on television that Bernhoft had been arrested and accused of neglecting the children she’d been hired to look after.
The reporter said some children went without food for several hours and were so starved they ate the foam from the car seats they were strapped to.
The mother said that after hearing the news report, she checked her child’s car seat and found the foam torn apart.
“It was all true,” she said. “You were the monster I thought you were.”