By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
The news hit Galveston late last October like a rogue wave, and within a day it had surged up Interstate 45 to saturate the local television news in Houston as well: Delores "Mama" King, a grandmotherly black woman in her seventies, stood accused of abusing several of the 12 children attending the day-care facility that King had operated on the island, without incident, since 1988. Two parents reported that their children, both under three years of age at the time, claimed that King had smeared feces on their faces as punishment. An employee of King's, 60-year-old Bobbie Delcambre, surfaced at the same time with audiocassettes that she said documented King slapping and yelling at children in her care. Concerned parents held a meeting. They listened to the tapes. They trusted Delcambre. They believed the children.
Two days after the news broke, the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services temporarily suspended King's day-care license. Today, after seven months and a dizzying and ongoing array of injunctions and revocations and appeals, King's Day Care remains closed, and Delores King remains unemployed, prevented by court order from providing so much as "supervision" for any child not related to her by blood or marriage.
In March of this year, the last straggling bit of news appeared: King's license had been permanently revoked by the state -- pending, of course, appeal -- and the saga dropped out of the media eye.
The mean old lady had been shut down and the children were safe.
Leanne Mudge, the mother of one of the boys allegedly abused, has moved on, enrolled her child in another facility where she feels confident of the care, and tried to put the events of October 2000 behind her.
Laura Rhoades has not.
"Come on in, we're breaking the law here," the young mother invites. Inside the two-story wood-frame home, Rhoades's kids --Lucy, age three, and Kris, age nine -- are playing under the supervision of Delores King. Rhoades has known King for 11 years, and her children grew up from babies under King's care. Rhoades found King the way parents always had, through recommendations from friends, who lauded King's gentle ways and the blue-ribbon crowd of professional parents and University of Texas Medical Branch staff who entrusted their kids to her watch. There was a community garden next door to King's house where she took the kids on field trips, and the playground equipment installed in the yard, and the driveway and sidewalks laid with knee-friendly outdoor carpeting.
There is no doubt whatsoever in Laura Rhoades's mind that Delores King was falsely, even maliciously accused. It is inconceivable to her that this woman who has devoted the last dozen years of her life to caring for children -- she produces a thick manila envelope stuffed with King's community awards and citations and certificates of ongoing education -- would suddenly, after more than a decade of building an unblemished word-of-mouth reputation, and without warning, turn out to be a woman who regularly slapped children in the head and screamed obscenities and punished kids by rubbing dirty diapers in their faces.
There would have been some hint over the years. There would have to be evidence. Laura Rhoades quit her dual home-office jobs and set out to look for evidence. She's still looking, and she's employed help.
Mark Stevens is the attorney of record on Delores King's licensing appeal, and he shares Rhoades's sense of righteous indignation over King's dilemma.
"The state's investigators on this one couldn't find a dog turd in a box of chocolates. They just did a horrible job. I think what happened was the state reacted to publicity. This got a lot of media publicity, and they said, 'Well, that's just too bad, but we've got to put somebody out of business, and it's going to be Mrs. King. We're not going to sit around with these allegations looking like we did nothing.' That's what I really believe happened in this thing."
What the state may have overlooked in its initial zeal, Stevens and Rhoades believe, is a lack of plausible evidence indicting King, and in fact a Galveston grand jury convened to consider criminal charges against King came back with a no-bill. "If there had been any plausible evidence whatsoever," Stevens says, "the grand jury would have nailed that lady to the wall. They didn't believe it."
District Judge Frank Carmona had declared the audiotapes inadmissible as evidence, in part because they had passed through multiple hands -- including those of Houston Chronicle reporter Kevin Moran, who published selected "transcriptions" -- on their way to the D.A.'s office, and in part because Delcambre admitted on the stand that she wasn't familiar with the operation of the cassette recorder and had accidentally erased portions and added narration.
"I heard those tapes at the parents meeting," Rhoades says, "and they don't say anything. There's one part where Delcambre is on the tape saying, you know, 'Whoops, I erased that part,' and then saying what supposedly happened." Rhoades contends that slapping sounds are children clapping, and that yelling on the tape is in Delcambre's voice, not King's. The tapes, she says, are full of obvious splices and inconsistencies.
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