Two workers accused of verbally, physically and emotionally abusing a pair of toddlers at a Southampton day care center in 2014 were cleared of the charges after the Southampton Town justice who heard both cases said each involved a lone eyewitness whose testimony had “shortcomings,” creating reasonable doubt.
Sarah Dawber, 24, of Mastic Beach and Kathleen Culver, 33, of Southampton were both found not guilty by Southampton Town Justice Gary Weber in a written ruling issued on December 28. Both women had faced single counts of endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor.
Ms. Dawber, whose trial took place in September, had been accused of force-feeding an 18-month-old girl at the now-closed Side By Side day care center. Ms. Culver’s trial took place in November; she was accused of attempting to do the same to a 16-month-old boy after he refused to eat, then kicking the high chair, lifting the boy out of the seat and slamming him onto the ground, causing him to hit his head.
Both cases were decided by Justice Weber, without a jury, and while the hearings were separate the written decisions, which had been delayed, came out simultaneously.
In both decisions, Justice Weber stated that the only direct evidence for either case was from a single source. In Ms. Dawber’s case, the source was her former classroom aide, Kennedy Williams, and in Ms. Culver’s case the source was Lori Marin, an employee at the day care who filled in when teachers needed to step away.
“We are very pleased with the court’s decision,” Colin Astarita, Ms. Dawber’s attorney, said in a statement released on December 28. “Sarah is very relieved and ready to move forward.”
He later added: “The judge indicated that the charges lacked any credible evidence to support a conviction.”
During her trial, Ms. Dawber took the stand in her own defense and said she “absolutely did not” force the girl to eat her food, as the complaint states, to the point that it resulted in her vomiting. Ms. Dawber admitted to putting her hand over the toddler’s face as she cried and refused to eat, but said she was trying to get the child to focus. She also said the girl spit out the food.
In his statement, Ms. Astarita was also critical of testimony given by Ms. Williams, saying that there “were inconsistencies in her testimony” and that “no other direct evidence of any kind was offered to support the theory that there was any improper conduct on Sarah’s behalf.”
Justice Weber pointed to inconsistencies in Ms. Williams’s testimony as well. “The only evidence presented is the testimony of one worker against another, who by her own admission, was estranged from good relations with her colleagues,” he wrote. “Most critically, the testimony of this witness on trial was substantially moderated from the original description of events she gave to the police.”
He added that he wouldn’t speculate on why her testimony had changed, but the fact that it did “was critical to this case” and reason enough for reasonable doubt.
Ms. Culver stood trial separately and, at the start of her trial, one of the prosecuting attorneys, Jamie Greenwood of Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office, alleged that a frustrated Ms. Culver repeatedly kicked the high chair of a boy after he refused to eat in December 2014. Ms. Greenwood also said Ms. Culver lifted the boy out of his high chair and slammed him on the floor, resulting in him hitting his head.
But at her hearing, the only evidence of guilt came from Ms. Marin, who Justice Weber noted “was obliged by law to report allegations of the kind she made, immediately … Here, the allegations come approximately eight months after the alleged incident and only after the Southampton Town Police had already launched an investigation.” That was the investigation prompted by the allegations against Ms. Dawber.
Justice Weber also wrote that the child’s lack of injuries was a factor: “It would seem that if it were true that the victim in this case was, in fact, thrown down and hit his head on a hard surface, that some form of serious injury would have ensued.” The boy had a Child Protective Services worker and guardian assigned to him at the time of the alleged abuse, but Justice Weber wrote that no one testified to any injuries that the boy sustained in December 2014 or any other time.
“While singular witnesses may be able to carry the heavy burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in some cases, that is not the case here,” he said, pointing to a not guilty verdict.
“I’m very pleased with the outcome,” Melissa Aguanno, the Sag Harbor-based attorney who represented Ms. Culver in court, said. “She’s ecstatic. I think she was shocked, but she had a lot of support from the beginning.”
In fact, the support Ms. Aguanno saw for Ms. Culver was one of the convincing factors for her that her client was not guilty. “She had at least 15 letters written from co-workers and a former owner, all in support of her,” Ms. Aguanno said. “I just knew that it couldn’t be.”
Regardless of what the judge decided on both cases, John Stella, the father of the girl whom Ms. Dawber was accused of force-feeding, said he is not convinced that either defendant is innocent.
“I’m very, very, very disappointed in what happened,” Mr. Stella said on Tuesday. “The fact is that they aren’t innocent. They just weren’t proven guilty. You just wish it didn’t happen.”
Mr. Stella said he and his wife, Caroline, are looking at possible civil action but referred all questions to his attorney, William Kimberly Polignani of Water Mill. Calls to Mr. Polignani were not immediately returned.
Stating that Ms. Dawber was “devastated” upon learning that she had been accused of a crime, Mr. Astarita stressed in his statement that she has always maintained her innocence.
“We would like to thank the members of our community who believed in Sarah’s innocence, including the owners and staff of the day care center, as well as the parents of the children that had been in Sarah’s care who continued to support her throughout this process,” Mr. Astarita said.
Ms. Culver could not be immediately reached for comment about the dismissal of the charge. Ms. Aguanno said her client has a tough road ahead of her.
“Unfortunately, a [Child Protective Services] investigation hurts the record,” Ms. Aguanno said. “She has continued to do private babysitting with parents who know her. She’s been doing this for many years. She had been working there [Side By Side] for 13 years. Hopefully, she can find her way and find a path.”