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Citrus Heights pastor ordered to stand trial on molestation charges
[February 05, 2011]

Citrus Heights pastor ordered to stand trial on molestation charges

Feb 04, 2011 (The Sacramento Bee - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- A hush fell over the courtroom Thursday as a Baptist pastor from Citrus Heights was ordered to stand trial on charges that he had molested girls as young as 5 in his home.

Tommy Gene Daniels, 48, was returned to jail on $6 million bail after Superior Court Judge Lloyd G. Connelly found there was probable cause to try him on six felony counts of child molestation involving five alleged victims.

Before Daniels' arrest Dec. 9, the five-bedroom home he shared with his wife of 25 years had been on the radar of law enforcement and child welfare agencies, according to a Bee review of court documents and state licensing records.

The 6-foot-2 defendant is pastor of First Baptist Church of Rio Linda, where he is listed on the church's website as senior pastor. His wife Brenda, 46, is listed in bankruptcy documents as the church's paid youth director.

Connelly cited the "detailed consistency" of the separate incidents described by two of the girls, despite the fact there was no evidence of communication between them.

Daniels' attorney, Michael L. Chastaine of Folsom, who challenged the credibility of the girls' stories, expressed disappointment in the ruling.

"There are two possibilities here: Either he did this, and it's horrible. Or he's innocent, and that's even worse," Chastaine said. "And there are a lot of people who believe he's innocent." Tommy and Brenda Daniels had been under intense scrutiny for years from child welfare agencies.

Brenda Daniels lost her day care and foster care licenses in 2003 due to substandard care, violations of state regulations, lying to state and county workers and misappropriating public funds -- as well as her husband's threat to a social worker about having a gun, according to records from the California Department of Social Services.

Despite the violations, a therapist from Loomis continued to place high-needs children in the home.

At least four of the five children allegedly molested by Daniels were sent there for "respite care" by Mell LaValley, a licensed marriage and family therapist, according to court testimony and documents obtained by The Bee.

The fifth child had been in day care and allegedly was molested in July 2005, after the state had revoked the day care license. Brenda Daniels testified Thursday that it was her teenage daughter who was baby-sitting the little girl.

Neither LaValley nor her attorney returned phone calls from The Bee.

'Respite care' providers Under questioning last week in court, LaValley said she met the Daniels after they sought her help in 2000 or 2001 in treating one of their own children. The Daniels have five children, three of whom were adopted, their attorney said.

LaValley told the court she began referring her own young clients, diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, or RAD, to live in the couple's home -- some for months at a stretch.

Respite care is sometimes used by adoptive parents of challenging children, or by overloaded foster parents. The homes provide temporary child care to families needing a break or a breather during emergencies.

In California, respite care providers must have a current foster care license if they are working with kids who are dependents of the court, such as foster children. Respite providers who work with biological or adoptive children do not require a license, and parents are free to place their children with whomever they choose.

The four children referred by LaValley to live with the Daniels had been legally adopted and were not part of the child welfare system, according to a source familiar with the case. It is unclear whether LaValley knew that the couple's licenses had been revoked.

Brenda Daniels, who also operates a housecleaning service, testified Thursday that parents would send children to her home because "Mell told them we had success with our kids." She said she was paid by the adoptive parents.

At both hearings, supporters of Daniels, including church members, sat on the left side of the courtroom while family members of the alleged victims occupied the right, occasionally weeping during testimony. Daniels' supporters periodically gathered in a circle in the hallway and prayed.

Daniels was first arrested in 2005 by Citrus Heights police on suspicion of molestation, but no charges were filed. Citrus Heights Police Lt. Ray Bechler said additional victims later came forward, and the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office elected to proceed.

Daniels is facing six felony counts of lewd and lascivious acts and engaging in "substantial sexual conduct" with a child under 14. All of the alleged acts took place between 2002 and 2007 and involved girls ranging from age 5 to 13, according to court papers and testimony.

The couple filed for bankruptcy protection nine days before his arrest.

State revoked licenses Besides the criminal charges, the case has revealed the couple's ability to continue being paid for taking in needy children -- even after local and state licensing authorities deemed them unfit to be licensed.

Brenda Daniels was licensed by the state in 1989 to operate a family child care home with up to 12 children, according to state documents. In 1997, she also was certified by a nonprofit foster family agency to provide foster care.

State records show that the couple's single-story home on a Citrus Heights cul-de-sac was frequently visited by state, county and foster agency workers, following up on complaints about lack of supervision, mistreatment of a distraught foster child and children biting and hitting.

Tensions boiled over in 2003, when the state revoked both licenses. According to state records, the couple's foster family agency, Positive Option Family Service, had decertified the home following a series of run-ins.

The foster family agency had decided to remove an 18-month-old foster child from the couple's care. When the agency called, Tommy Daniels "yelled at the social worker over the phone and stated that he had a gun-- and that the child would be removed 'over his dead body,' " according to state records.

Daniels later denied saying that he had a gun, according to the state documents. The couple told state licensing officials that Positive Option was fabricating stories to discredit them, since they had "planned to expose Positive Options (sic) as an immoral organization (a 'Sodom and Gomorrah' in Mr. Daniels' words) which embraced homosexual and alternative lifestyles." Amid the escalating conflicts with Positive Option and the state, Brenda Daniels tried to get the county to directly license her as a foster family home in 2003. The application was denied.

But children continued to find their way into the home.

LaValley, the therapist who referred four of the girls, is associated with a controversial Colorado woman who promotes a coercive treatment for children with Reactive Attachment Disorder.

RAD is a serious condition in which babies and young children fail to establish healthy bonds with parents or caregivers. Many have histories of severe neglect and often reside in foster care or adoptive homes.

LaValley is listed as a "parent recommended" attachment therapist on the website of Nancy Thomas, whose work has been described by some mainstream physicians and mental health professionals as fringe. A 2006 study of RAD therapy by a panel of experts found that "unconventional" treatments include scheduled holding of children, binding, rebirthing, lying on top of children or holding their faces to force prolonged eye contact.

A foremost expert on RAD, Dr. Charles H. Zeanah Jr. of Tulane University School of Medicine, who co-authored the study, said RAD therapy belongs with a "highly skilled person." "These children require the highest level treatment we have," Zeanah said.

The Daniels told a state licensing worker in 2003 that they had attended a seminar on the "Nancy Thomas model" for children with RAD.

------ Call The Bee's Marjie Lundstrom, (916) 321-1055.

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