By Thomas K. Pendergast
All sexual assault charges against a former employee of the Edgewood Center for Children and Families in San Francisco’s Sunset District have been dropped for lack of evidence, although another former employee still faces unrelated charges alleging possession of child pornography.
Founded as an orphanage 169 years ago, today Edgewood treats children suffering from an array of psychiatric and behavioral problems. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, they served about 11,000 children and families in 2018, mostly through outpatient programs.
In September of 2019, Kenneth Ofigho, 31, of the Bayview District was charged with five felony counts on suspicion that he committed lewd or lascivious acts upon a 14-year-old minor while he was working the night shift at Edgewood, and he faced up to three years in prison if convicted.
According to media reports the 14-year-old accuser in this case reported the alleged abuse to another Edgewood employee in April of 2019, and that employee contacted state officials. The accuser shall remain unnamed because that person is a minor.
This led to an investigation, which concluded that Ofigho “went into (a resident’s) bedroom in the middle of the night and inappropriately touched (the resident’s) breast and buttocks.” The investigator in this case also recovered security camera footage from the hallway outside of the alleged victim’s bedroom and did interviews that provided further evidence.
Ofigho was placed on leave and later terminated from his position. He surrendered to the police on Sept. 4, 2019.
On March 5, 2020, however, San Francisco’s Assistant District Attorney Lailah Morris dismissed the case due to insufficient evidence to support the burden of proof.
The San Francisco Public Defenders office issued a statement saying that the charges were dismissed after a lengthy review of all the evidence, including the lack of any DNA evidence, and a witness who was present but did not corroborate the allegations. The court also reviewed more than 700 pages of records from Edgewood Center.
“The presumption of innocence failed Mr. Ofigho from the start,” Deputy Public Defender Sylvia Nguyen said. “Since these accusations were made, he was taken to jail, later placed on house arrest, lost his job, and was publicly humiliated by having his name and picture circulated in the news media. Thanks to our team’s relentless investigation and persistence in seeking the truth, he has been vindicated and is finally free to move forward with his life.”
According to the public defender’s statement, Mr. Ofigho had no prior contact with the criminal legal system before these allegations.
“Mr. Ofigho has been living a nightmare for almost a year and, unfortunately, he will suffer the professional ramifications of these false allegations for years to come despite his innocence,” Nguyen said.
Lynn Dolce, Edgewood’s chief executive officer, noted that criminal prosecutions generally need a higher standard of proof to move forward.
“While the San Francisco DA dropped the charges, the State (of California) substantiated the allegations,” Dolce said. “The state and the county have a different standard of proof that they need to work towards. The DA needs a certain kind of evidence but the state, upon their investigation, substantiated the allegations.”
Last August, the state issued a Community Care Licensing Report about the matter.
“When the State did their investigation, they found a preponderance of evidence to substantiate the allegations and that means that they were (at least) 51% certain,” Dolce said. “It’s very hard to have forensic evidence for something that’s happened months ago. The DA really likes to have forensic evidence because it’s much harder to prove in court without it, and especially for a child.”
Meanwhile another former Edgewood employee is facing unrelated felony charges in Santa Clara County.
The San Jose Mercury News reported that Santa Clara County prosecutors have filed a child-porn possession charge against a former night supervisor at Edgewood.
According to the newspaper, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office announced that Graham Bessermin, 38, of San Jose, was arraigned May 31, 2019 on one count of possessing child pornography and one count of communicating with a minor for sex.
A Santa Clara County DA news release said Bessermin was one of more than a dozen people across the country that were allegedly sending or receiving child pornography from an unspecified social-media account. Morgan Hill police were tipped off to the account in November, and eventually arrested two men from San Martin and Morgan Hill, who they suspected of “producing child porn and sexually assaulting children under 10,” prosecutors said.
Police identified Bessermin as one of the people whom they found had “suspected child pornography videos” on his phone, according to prosecutors.
“These are not just images. They are real children, children who are exploited and abused,” Deputy District Attorney O’Bryan Kenney said, according to the newspaper.
At the time of his arrest, Bessermin, who lived in San Jose, had been working at Edgewood for more than two years.
Morgan Hill police notified Edgewood of the arrest, and an official there said Bessermin was immediately placed on leave and later terminated.
City agencies working with Edgewood began their own investigation after Bessermin’s arrest into whether any children at the facility had been harmed. Investigators with the City’s Human Services Agency interviewed residents who had been at Edgewood during Bessermin’s tenure there. One youth reported being harmed by Bessermin at Edgewood in late 2018. That allegation was then forwarded to the State’s Department of Social Services.
Details about the alleged victim’s sex and age, as well as the precise dates of the alleged abuse, remain confidential to protect the victim’s privacy.
Bessermin has not been criminally charged in San Francisco.
He has been held on $300,000 bail in Santa Clara County since his arrest on the child pornography and child solicitation charges. He has pleaded not guilty and his next court appearance is scheduled for May 7, 2020.
The Legal Herald reported that the San Francisco Public Health Department and Human Services Agency stopped referring children to three Edgewood programs following the public release of the state’s investigation in August 2019. The City has asked the organization to come up with a new safety plan before referrals begin again. Approximately 30 children have been sent to other programs while referrals are suspended.
“The City and county had concerns about systemic abuse and we’re working very closely with the City to address their concerns and make sure that they are confident in our ability to have a safe environment for the kids,” Dolce said.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Department of Social Services has required Edgewood to implement reforms, including training on how to report abuse and “educating clients on what grooming looks like” by a child predator. Grooming can involve any pattern of behavior where adults establish connections with children they have sexual interest in.
The state made clear that should more abuse allegations arise, Edgewood could lose its license.
“There’s no other place in San Francisco that takes care of children and youth who are experiencing an acute psychiatric distress for more than a week or two. So Edgewood is really it,” Dolce said. “They’ve closed those complaints and they did issue us our permanent license. If they were concerned about systemic abuse at Edgewood they probably would have shut us down temporarily while we figured out what was going on but they never did that. They never suspended our license or took it away.
“By issuing us our permanent license they have basically said: ‘We think you’re a safe place for kids,’” she said. “That helps my team. Certainly, morale has been very low. It’s been hard. So, that was good to hear from the State in December, but the county continues to work with us on what they think is important, their standards. Everybody has a different set of criteria and so we’re working with everybody and we have cooperated from the beginning.”
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