As details emerged of the suspected sexual abuse of 13 young children, prosecutors said Friday that they did not bring earlier criminal charges against accused pedophile John Burbine because the families of the two alleged victims declined to provide the cooperation needed to secure convictions.
“We did not have the evidence we needed to sustain criminal convictions due to a variety of factors, including the fact that the victims and their families were unable or unwilling to go forward,” said Stephanie Chelf Guyotte, a spokeswoman for Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr.
The two abuse complaints against Burbine were brought in 2005 and 2009.
The handling of the two earlier abuse complaints raised questions about whether authorities could have intervened before the couple incorporated the day-care program in fall 2009 and began caring for scores of children. In 1989, Burbine was convicted three times of indecent assault and battery on a child, court records show.
After those convictions, he was classified as a Level 1 sex offender, the category considered least likely to reoffend. Information about Level 1 sex offenders is available only to law enforcement officials, not the public.
Charles MacDonald, spokesman for the Sex Offender Registry Board, said he could not comment on Burbine’s classification.
“Legally we cannot confirm that someone who is a Level 1 sex offender is in fact a Level 1 offender,” he said.
In July, another complaint was lodged against Burbine, alleging that he abused a 2-year-old girl in his care. As with the previous allegations, prosecutors said they were unable to substantiate the claim because the family was unwilling or unable to go forward. But they investigated further after learning that the wife’s day-care business, the Waterfall Education Center in the center of Wakefield, was unlicensed.
Investigators obtained a search warrant for the couple’s Wakefield home and, prosecutors say, found video of alleged assaults against children ranging in age from 8 days to 3 years.
Burbine was arrested Sept. 28 in Reading and charged with two counts of rape of a child and 13 counts of possession of child pornography, while investigators continued to build a broader case.
“After the arrest was made to alleviate any public safety threat, our office continued its thorough investigation, which uncovered more than a dozen victims,” Chelf Guyotte said.
Leora Joseph, until recently chief of the Suffolk district attorney’s child protection unit, said prosecutors often face insurmountable hurdles in child sexual abuse cases where there are no witnesses or physical evidence.
“The trial process is very difficult for victims and their families,” Joseph said. “In order for a person to be convicted, a child needs to be able to testify about what happened to them, unless there is a witness who can speak about what happened.”
When the victims are toddlers, the challenges are all the more daunting, she said, as the children are often unable to testify.
“I’ve never put a 3-year-old on the stand,” Joseph said. “I can’t even imagine it.”
Burbine’s wife, Marian Burbine, is charged with reckless endangerment of a child and operating an unlicensed day-care business. She was arraigned Oct. 1 and released on bail with various conditions and was ordered to stay away from children.
Reports from the state Department of Early Education and Care, which oversees child-care facilities, show that Marian Burbine seemed well aware of her husband’s past and had warned several neighbors that her husband posed a threat to their children. About three years ago, she offered to care for a neighbor’s child, saying she was an experienced child-care worker. But she added, “If John asks [to take care of her child] say no, thank you. It’s extremely important you say no.”
She told another neighbor, “Don’t let my husband watch kids,” the documents show. The couple does not have children.
Yet prosecutors say Marian Burbine at other times looked to give her husband opportunities to look after children, telling parents he was an experienced and problem-free baby-sitter.
In the months since John Burbine’s arrest, prosecutors worked to identify other victims and provide them with counseling. The victims were from a number of communities north of Boston, including Reading, Stoneham, and Melrose, as well as Waltham and Newton.
“Working with victims was our priority during that time,” Chelf Guyotte said.
In a 158-page indictment released Friday, prosecutors outlined the scope of the alleged abuse, which Leone described as the worst child case of its kind he had seen. Burbine faces 100 counts of criminal charges in connection to the abuse, and prosecutors say many of the children were abused repeatedly.
The charges are graphic, describing the nature of the assaults and how children were posed in sexual conduct.
The complaint that sparked the broader investigation involved a 2-year-old girl, whom the couple cared for with her infant sister. After just weeks in the couple’s care, she began exhibiting “sexualized behavior,” court records show. Investigators quickly learned the Buirbines were running a child-care service without a license, in clear violation of state law.
Interviews with parents revealed that the couple would pick up children from one family’s home, andbring them to another, a service that requires state authorization.
“The center wasn’t licensed in any way,” said Heather Johnson, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Early Education and Care.
With some exceptions, including care by relatives, informal arrangements among friends, and occasional care, child-care facilities must be licensed by the state.
While the couple generally cared for children in the children’s homes, investigators found they also took them to their Wakefield residence. Neighbors told investigators they saw John Burbine with young children, sometimes from more than one family, on his street and entering his home. That home, investigators found, was piled high with debris.
“The condition of the home is deplorable,” an investigator wrote in an August report. “By bringing any child into their home, the Burbines endangered the child.”
The agency also found that the center falsely advertised on its website that its nannies were state-certified and had received a background check. These claims were “false and misleading to the public,” the agency reported.
The child-care service had at least five other employees, who described themselves to investigators as tutors. They are not implicated in the alleged abuse.
In September, the agency issued a cease-and-desist order against the couple. “By providing unlicensed care, your clients placed children at risk because there is no method to ensure their safety,” the agency wrote in a letter to the couple’s lawyer.
The agency had previously investigated a 2009 complaint that Marian Burbine was providing unlicensed care in her home, but determined that she had not. The agency sent her a letter saying she needed to apply for a license if she decided to care for a child on a regular basis.
According to records at the secretary of state’s office, Marian Burbine registered Waterfall as a limited liability company in September 2009, saying the organization intended to “provide tutoring, school-aged child care, and educational support for children and adults.” Two months later, Burbine amended the filing, this time saying that “licensed teachers provide tutoring for children,” omitting any reference to child care.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin said that because the business did provide child care, the omission is probably punishable with a light civil penalty.
“I’ll refer the matter to my general counsel, and if we feel it’s appropriate to file something, we will,” he said.