Nonprofit questions investigation into child abuse at Greensboro church’s day care

Greensboro News & Record [Greensboro NC]

May 14, 2021

By Jamie Biggs

GREENSBORO — A nonprofit that advocates for child abuse victims is speaking out on behalf of concerned families after a Greensboro woman was sentenced to prison on child pornography charges connected to the day care where she worked.

In late 2020, Alyson Brooke Saunders, 25, pleaded guilty to one count each of producing and distributing child pornography. Saunders, who worked at Fellowship Presbyterian Church’s Fellowship Day School at 2005 New Garden Road, was initially arrested in April 2019.

According to court documents, Saunders used five minors at the day care facility to create sexually explicit images and videos around January and February of 2019. Saunders sexually abused some of the children and sent the images and videos to a co-conspirator, knowing that he planned to post them online, according to the Department of Justice.

Saunders was sentenced last month to 50 years in prison, followed by 20 years of supervised release.

Despite the conviction, the California-based Coalition for Institutional Child Abuse Prevention is questioning whether the investigation was thorough enough.

“We have still yet to see any justice transpire for this community and the families affected,” coalition founder and executive director Loxie Gant said Thursday at a press conference outside of the Guilford County Courthouse in Greensboro.

She also accused Fellowship Presbyterian Church of “bullying and threatening” concerned families of the church.

The church disputes the claims by Gant, who got involved after parents contacted her.

Gant alleged that when the investigation into Saunders began, the church reacted with hostility.

“As multiple families came forward to express their concern for their children having been in the direct care of this brutal and dangerous child predator, they were met with a full defense team, including the assistant director of the preschool, Debbie Clark, who was a direct manager and supervisor of the perpetrator,” Gant said.

She also claimed that Clark is Saunders’ biological aunt.

Reached Friday morning by the News & Record, Clark said she wanted to think about her response but had not responded by 7 p.m. Friday.

According to Gant, the church made no effort to reach out to parents whose children were under Saunders’ care during the five years she worked at the school.

“She was prosecuted for the five filmed sexual exploitation incidents at the preschool,” Gant said. “We are still left with an unknown number of other victims who were likely between the ages of 2 and 10 years old.”

Though no families have filed legal action, Gant said she is in touch with “multiple” families who said they were “bullied” and “isolated” by the church for speaking out and expressing worry for other children.

In a written statement, Fellowship Presbyterian Church denied acting in a defensive manner. The statement was signed by the Rev. Kathryn G.N. Campbell and other church officials.

In the statement, officials said that as soon as allegations against Saunders were brought to the church’s attention in 2019, church representatives immediately called a meeting with school parents where they shared all the information available to them at that time, except for the identities of the children and their families.

After that meeting, the church said it told parents it would continue to provide all information received by authorities, as well as post written updates on its website.

“The Church throughout has continued to have an open-door and open-book approach to this terrible situation,” officials said in the statement. “The Church has provided all of the information it has to the parents and the Church has also continued to fully cooperate with the law enforcement officers investigating the matter.”

The church said Gant may be well-intentioned, but that her information is “inaccurate and incorrect.”

“Ms. Gant, who apparently had no involvement in or knowledge of this situation before last week, has stated that the Church withheld information and bullied parents. These statements are simply and completely false.”

Gant said she learned of the case last week after being contacted by a family member who knew someone in a separate case on which she is working.

According to Fellowship Presbyterian Church’s website, Fellowship Day School is not operating. The preschool was dropped by its insurance provider in 2020 and is continuing to seek adequate coverage to be able to bring back the day care.

But during the press conference, Gant revealed that Clark, the former executive director of Fellowship Day School, had started a new preschool, Peas in a Pod, at Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro.

Gant also said that Clark operated both preschools under a “legal loophole.”

In North Carolina, day cares and preschools that take children in during two or more separate “components,” each of which operates for four hours or less per day with different children attending each component, are exempt from child care licensure, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Gant said Clark was “exploiting” the exemption at both preschools, and that reform is demanded on a state level to ensure child safety.

On its website, Peas in a Pod describes itself as “an independent preschool and kindergarten dedicated to offering a safe, happy place where everyone is known and valued, and where differing needs are acknowledged, accepted and met.”

On Thursday, the News & Record reached out to the Congregational United Church of Christ to determine the preschool program’s connection to the church and if Clark was involved in running it.

A church representative said Peas in a Pod was leasing space from the church and that Clark was one of the people directing the program, which is not part of the church’s programming.

After learning Thursday about Clark’s connection to Fellowship Day School and the crimes committed there, the church said later that day Peas in a Pod has been suspended from using their building.

In an email to congregants obtained by the News & Record, church officials said the church was unaware of the situation until Thursday afternoon. They said the references for Clark and her assistant were “uniformly positive” and that during the six months they have rented space from the church, they have been “good to work with” and the families “seem quite happy with the program.” Clark apologized to church officials for not notifying them of what happened, saying she thought everyone already knew, according to the email.

“We told them we did not, and we expressed our dismay that they had not informed us,” church officials said in the email. “We asked them to suspend their program and remove their signs, and we are looking further into all of this. Depending on what we learn, we may or may not welcome them back as renters.”

Gant also suggested Thursday that any parents with children who attended Fellowship Day School between 2014 and 2019 should seek a non-invasive evaluation of their child at the child advocacy center at the Guilford County Family Justice Center. She is concerned that the investigation wasn’t thorough because it appears other children weren’t interviewed for possible signs of abuse.

Homeland Security Investigations in Winston-Salem conducted the investigation with assistance from the State Bureau of Investigation. The SBI deferred questions to HSI, citing them as the primary investigator. HSI did not answer phone calls seeking comment Friday.

Contact Jamie Biggs at 336-373-4476 and follow @JamieBiggsNR on Twitter.