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Suffield school superintendent, recreation supervisor charged with failing to report suspected child abuse to DCF

Hartford Courant - 11/8/2018

Nov. 08--The former Suffield schools superintendent and a former town recreation supervisor were both arrested Thursday on charges that they failed to contact the state Department of Children and Families about suspected child abuse, police said.

Karen M. Berasi, 68, of Suffield, the former superintendent, and Cynthia M. Fisher, 58, of Windsor Locks, the former recreation supervisor, were both mandatory reporters and had a legal obligation to report suspected abuse to DCF, police said. They were charged with with failing to report abuse by a mandatory reporter.

The cases against the two women and not related, but both turned themselves in to police Thursday morning and were released on promised to appear in court Nov. 20 in Enfield. The arrests followed several months of investigation, Suffield police Capt. Chris McKee said.

The investigation of Berasi began after a 17-year-old student alleged that a school psychologist had an inappropriate conversation with her about a sex shop in Manchester. The student told her mother, who contacted Berasi May 2 and asked that she investigate, contact DCF and not allow the school psychologist to have further contact with her daughter.

School officials began an investigation the next day, police learned during their investigation. The student's mother emailed Berasi expressing frustration with the school's response and wrote that she would contact DCF. The mother contacted DCF at 9:24 p.m.May 3.

On May 4, according to the warrant, Berasi called DCF and said she was only calling because of recent reports about school administrators being charged with violating the mandatory reporter law in Montville. "Ordinarily, I would not report this, and so before I report it I want to tell you, I think this is a false claim," Berasi said, according to a transcript of the call included in the warrant for her arrest.

Berasi went on to provide more details, including what the school psychologist allegedly said, that the psychologist denied denied the allegation, and that others nearby heard nothing. Berasi also said she believed the school psychologist, who is not named in the warrant.

The DCF worker told Berasi she could not tell her not to make a report, and that Berasi was "only obligated to report abuse or neglect if you feel in good faith there is abuse or neglect."

"OK, OK, got it," Berasi responded. "That you so much. I don't need to go any further."

In a followup conversation with Berasi, a DCF investigative social worker reported that Berasi said she did not believe the allegations. Berasi also said, according to the warrant, the student and her mother have credibility issues and that the mother is trying to get her daughter put in another program.

The DCF investigator said the allegations should be investigated because the student's situation places her at a higher risk of being abused, according to the warrant. Berasi also said, according to the warrant, she was concerned about putting the school psychologist on paid leave because of a shortage of school psychologists. Later on May 4, the school psychologist was placed on leave.

DCF subsequently notified Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane that Berasi and two others in the Suffield school system became aware of allegations of misconduct against a school employee involving a 17-year-old girl and none of the three contacted DCF. Suffield police began investigating.

Only Berasi is identified in the warrant. McKee said the police investigation into allegations that others failed to report is continuing.

In a statement, prepared with a lawyer and provided to police, Berasi wrote, "While we did not have any reasonable suspicion that the incident occurred, I called DCF on [May 4] for two reasons. One, I had told the parent I would call DCF. Two, since the Montville cases I thought it best to protect ourselves and make DCF aware of the incident."

In the aftermath of the incident, Berasi was placed on leave by the Suffield school board. She subsequently retired, effective June 30. She could not be reached for comment.

The police investigation into the 17-year-old girl's claim was closed without charges being filed. The DCF investigation into the same allegations was closed with a finding of unsubstantiated, according to the warrant.

The Montville incident Berasi referred to concerned the arrest of three Montville school administrators, including the superintendent, on charges of failing to report suspected abuse to DCF, after they did not report a "fight club" that a substitute teacher was allegedly running in his classroom. In two cases, the charges of been dropped. The charges are still pending in the third.

Gary Kleeblaft, a spokesman for DCF, said it is critical for people who are in direct contact with children to report suspected abuse.

"School officials are among the most important categories of mandated reporters due to the extensive contact they have with children and the trust that families place with educators in the safe and appropriate care of their children," Kleeblatt said. "The legal obligation to report suspected abuse and neglect is of utmost importance to the safety of children and the failure to do so is a serious violation of this critical responsibility."

Fisher, who has since retired, is accused of failing to report allegations of physical abuse received by a person who worked for her. A boy at camp told a camp employee that his father physically abused his brother. The camp employee told Fisher, who said she knew the family and would take it up with the boy's mother, according to the warrant for her arrest. In an interview with police, Fisher acknowledged that she was a mandatory reporter, but said "she knew the family very well ... [and] could take care of it herself." Fisher could not be reached for comment.

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(c)2018 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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