ALBANY — In the early 1980s, David Burgos was sent to Pleasantville Cottage School, a group home for troubled youth in Westchester County. Soon after his arrival, an assistant teacher asked him to stay after class to clean the blackboards.
The teacher sexually abused him, Burgos said in an interview. He never actually cleaned the blackboard, but no one ever said anything. “He told me that he had the power of whether I go home to my mother or not,” Burgos said. According to a lawsuit Burgos filed last week, he was 13 when the abuse occurred.
Child welfare advocates and experts said the rates of abuse in the foster care system are likely significantly higher than among the general population of children, and existing academic studies seem to back that up. But clear answers are hard to come by: Experts uniformly said that data collection is murky, and what information is collected is often shielded from public view for privacy reasons.
The former children of Pleasantville interviewed by the Times Union described an environment where it was not unusual for staff members to single out children for unobserved attention. They said staff and other children were aware of unusually close relationships between the plaintiffs and their alleged abusers, and the lawsuits allege negligence on the part of Pleasantville in failing to curtail the abuse.
“It’s a very difficult thing to think someone is sexually abusing a little girl. But someone, somebody should have questioned,” said Heide Fromme Kaye, one of the plaintiffs and represented by Marsh Law. She is now a teacher.
Kaye says she was abused by Robinson — who she said is now dead — from 1973 to 1976. Robinson started grooming her when she was 11, she said, telling her “I really like you” and inviting her to spend extra time with him.
Eventually, he told her to visit him at his living area. He began to molest her, Kaye said; when she protested, Robinson told her, “Heide, you know there are much worse places you could be.”
Over a period of years, he assaulted and raped her many times, Kaye alleges. She was identified by other children and by the staff members as “belonging” to Robinson — “Leon’s special little friend,” she recalled the staff saying.