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.
"They're worthless as far as the court thing," Stevens says. "But I'll tell you what's going on, is they're being used behind her back against Mrs. King. While they weren't admissible in court, they apparently were admissible in the minds of the people at the state."
Estella Olguin, public information officer for the Child Care Licensing division of the state's protective and regulatory services in Houston, admits that yes, transcripts of the tapes were a factor in the state's decision to revoke King's license, as were on-site compliance investigations, and interviews with children and parents and Delcambre and at least one other King employee. Olguin can't say how many parents were interviewed, or how many children, but she does say that "we found enough noncompliances, even without the abuse," to close down King. On December 22 Child Care Licensing sent King a letter outlining a small laundry list of noncompliances, from the sensational feces-smearing charge to the tepid "you acknowledged that you have 'tapped' children on their hands as punishment." On February 28 CCL informed King that her license was being permanently revoked.
"When the state started talking about this case and brought it to court," Stevens says, "they were talking about rubbing feces and battering children and everything else. By the time they argued the case, and by the time they put their representative witnesses on to tell the state's position, they seem to have abandoned that position, the physical battery, the feces smearing and everything else. They were relying on emotional abuse."
If there is any medical evidence that any child suffered abuse at the hands of King, it has not been presented.
King has filed an appeal, which will be heard by the State Office of Administrative Hearing probably no sooner than three months from now.
The state has no continuing investigation into the charges. Galveston police dropped the case after the grand jury no-bill.
Not satisfied with the best efforts of herself and of Stevens, Rhoades has retained trial consultant and author Dean Tong, of Florida, whose Web site (www.abuse-excuse.com) and forthcoming book (Elusive Innocence: Survival Guide for the Falsely Accused) deal with a narrow specialty in false allegation cases, especially as they relate to accusees mired in the bureaucracies of child protection service agencies.
Tong believes that "What usually happens happened in this case. And that's that the government went with their initial suspect and they ran with it. They just don't conduct a complete objective and independent, impartial investigation. They don't have the resources, they don't have the time, they don't have the personnel, and there's always that hidden agenda that exists: They want to get their victory."
Tong, Stevens and Rhoades all agree that if the state had indeed done a thorough investigation, it would have found what both Judge Carmona and a grand jury had found earlier: a lack of evidence of wrongdoing on King's part.
The tapes are, at the very least, deeply suspect. And the toddlers who told their mothers they'd had feces rubbed on their faces?
"I don't think we can start giving credibility," Tong says, "certainly not reliability, to what comes out of the mouths of babes at age two and a half It's absolutely normal for two-and-a-half-year-olds to be smearing feces, albeit on themselves, on a wall, whatever so that doesn't tell me anything."
But according to Tong, establishing one's innocence in false accusation cases is only half of an uphill battle. One must also impeach the credibility of the accuser.
That would be Bobbie Delcambre, who had worked for King less than a year. And it turns out, according to King, that she and Delcambre had had a fight several weeks before the allegations arose. King had been letting Delcambre borrow her Lincoln Town Car to run errands, but once she started getting calls from the close-knit community about Delcambre driving around town and showing off "her new car" to friends, King rescinded those privileges.
Rhoades says Delcambre started circulating poison phone calls to parents several days before coming forth with the tapes, even as she was filling out daily sheets for the children containing no hint of trouble. Why, King wants to know, did Delcambre leave her own grandson in King's care the day before she went public, to "protect" the children, with a supposed three weeks' worth of incriminating recordings? Rhoades has also filed a police report on King's behalf alleging that Delcambre forged King's signature on checks and stole paperwork from her office.
According to Department of Public Safety records, Bobbie Delcambre has a history of using alias names, including Bobbie Phillips and Bobbie Cooper. She also has two arrest records in the 1980s, accompanied by guilty or no contest pleas, for DWI and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
"Ms. Delcambre used to be in the day-care business until she surrendered her license two years ago," says Stevens. "There were some sanitation complaints and she just said to hell with it and gave her license back Her daughter is still in the business, and her daughter runs a facility that is open and in good standing today Our information -- and there are denials of this kicking around, this is disputed -- is that when Mrs. Mudge had her little press party apparently somebody got up and made the suggestion about other places they could send these children, so there was a little bit of a commercial angle in this too. Mrs. King had a nice book of business. And I think it would help certain people to knock her out of business."
"I guess my point," Tong says, "is there's a lot of information there about Ms. Delcambre that I don't believe has been uncovered. And I find this in a lot of my cases, oftentimes the finger's pointed at the wrong person, and in fact the finger should be pointed at the actual complainant or accuser."
The Houston Press was unable to locate a current phone number or address for Delcambre.
Laura Rhoades is not a lawyer and she is not a detective, and there is in fact squabbling among the team she has amassed. Rhoades hired Tong with money she raised partly from private contributions on King's behalf, many of them from local day cares, but lawyer Stevens has decided to make do without Tong's services.
"He didn't agree with my plan," says Tong, who maintains low hopes that King will win her appeal with Stevens at the wheel. "I'm not going to state for the record that Mark Stevens is incompetent," Tong says, "but I will tell you that [lawyers] don't know what they don't know, and they've got huge egos. And I'm sorry, but there's no course in any law school in Texas or the other 49 states that shows a lawyer how to litigate or try false allegation cases."
What it takes, Tong says, is money. Money, mostly, for expert witnesses.
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Rhoades is doing her part, throwing a community fund-raiser last Saturday, and continuing to amass testimonials from other day-care parents who are eager to confirm, for the record, their absolute certainty of King's innocence.
Leanne Mudge and other parents remain unconvinced.
Rhoades keeps searching for the evidence, stringing discrepancies and suspicions and a trail of paper together into a plausible theory as to how a small-time con artist might have tried to take advantage of a sweet old lady and ruined her name and her business in the process, and how a state agency -- in a rush to shut down talk about a woman, licensed and decorated by that same agency, smearing shit on the cheeks of children -- might not be inclined to bend over backward in considering her innocence.
And while Laura Rhoades collects all that, searching for a smoking gun to prove it and for someone in authority who cares, her most compelling pieces of evidence are out in the backyard, playing, illegally, with Delores King.