Broadway Center director's trial underway

BY BETH BRATSOS | MAY 09, 2012 6:30 AM

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The mother of an alleged victim in a child sexual-abuse case testified in the Johnson County Courthouse on Tuesday that she began noticing behavioral changes in her daughter around the time of the incident.

The 23-year-old — who, along with her 3-year-old daughter, are not being named in accordance with Daily Iowan policy — said her daughter started to act unusual about five months ago after sitting on her mother's lap and grabbing her face.

"She was kissing passionately," she said. "As if we were having sex."

When the mother asked numerous times who "taught her to kiss like that," the daughter repeatedly said it was Colleen Varney, a teacher at the Broadway Neighborhood Center's HeadStart program.

"I started piecing everything together," the mother said.

The mother first approached Michael Crowley, a teacher who works with 3- to 4-year-olds in the Headstart program. Crowley then told Susan Freeman-Murdah, director of the Broadway Center.

As a mandatory reporter, Freeman-Murdah is required to report any allegations of child abuse to the Department of Human Services within 24 hours. But she allegedly conducted an internal investigation after being approached by Crowley.

Freeman-Murdah, 44, was charged Feb. 1 with failing to fulfill her legal duty as a mandatory reporter after hearing evidence the child had been sexually abused in the Headstart Program, which Freeman oversees.

Though most officials at the Broadway Center seemed to agree no form of sexual abuse had occurred, Assistant County Attorney Meredith Rich-Chappell said the case aims to determine whether Freeman-Murdah had sufficient reason to report the suspected child abuse to Human Services.

Freeman-Murdah's attorney, Leon Spies, later said Human Services officials eventually conducted an investigation on the matter and did not find any evidence Varney abused the child.

Crowley, also a mandatory reporter, told Freeman in December 2011 he had been approached by the mother with concerns her daughter had been sexually assaulted after her daughter came home from preschool with her underpants inside out and backwards and complained of pain in one of her private areas. Crowley was not charged because he was only required to report the incident to his superior.

Rich-Chappell said in her opening statement Freeman-Murdah began the internal investigation after speaking with Crowley.

On Dec. 8, Freeman-Murdah spoke with Varney, a co-teacher of Crowley's. Freeman-Murdah later met with the child's mother on Dec. 12. Varney was eventually included in the meeting that same day.

Rich-Chappell said earlier testimony stated Freeman-Murdah told the mother she had confidence in Varney and didn't believe she had committed the act.

When the mother found no one from the center had reported to Human Services, Iowa City police Lt. Doug Hart said the mother informed the police of the alleged incident. Hart then assigned Detective Kevin Bailey to the case.

"I explained I would assign an investigator right away," Hart said in his testimony Tuesday.

He added that Human Services was then notified of the incident; Iowa City police and Human Service officials work together regardless of who is contacted first regarding child-abuse investigations.

The trial will continue at 9 a.m. today with testimony from Human Services and others. The jury of seven — consisting of numerous current and former mandatory reporters — should return a verdict Wednesday or Thursday.

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