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Day-care license in the balance after boys tackle steep slope

A woman who exposed her charges to the outdoors awaits her fate after an incident at Arroyo Burro beach in Santa Barbara.

November 29, 2009|By Steve Chawkins
  • Lia Grippo, whose license has been suspended, climbs the hill that spectators thought was too dangerous for the children in her care, prompting them to call police.
Lia Grippo, whose license has been suspended, climbs the hill that spectators… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Santa Barbara — For years,Lia Grippo has taught outdoor activities to preschoolers, coaching them on the safest tree branches to climb and the sturdiest footholds on hills. So for Grippo, a steep slope at a Santa Barbara beach was a natural challenge for several young children in her care, including her two sons.

But for state social services officials, the hill -- estimates of its height range from 85 to 125 feet -- was anything but child's play. Several weeks after alarmed spectators called police about three boys -- all barefoot and one naked -- climbing what they believed to be a dangerous slope, the state Department of Social Services suspended Grippo's home day-care license.

Grippo, 36, was accused of "conduct inimical to the health, morals, welfare, or safety" of children. The teacher and longtime leader of wilderness programs appealed the suspension in an administrative hearing that ended last week.

She and her supporters cast the episode as symptomatic of a society that smothers children by shielding them from all risk.

"If she had put kids in front of the TV and served them Kool-Aid for six hours, she wouldn't have lost her license," said her attorney, Andrea Marcus. "But I'd argue that that's abuse."

Nobody was hurt in the June 15 incident at Arroyo Burro beach.

It was the first day of Grippo's summer outdoor program, and she, an assistant and 10 children had spent the morning searching for crabs. As snack time ended, her 7-year-old son and his 6-year-old friend started climbing the hill, which she said they had done numerous times, though never to the top. They were followed by three younger boys, two of whom came back down when she called to them.

The third -- Grippo's 4-year-old -- was frozen at a level she said was 15 feet above the sand, though at least one witness described it as much higher. He had slid about a foot and was panicked, Grippo said, by a knot of adults below him yelling "Stop! Don't come down!" to the boys who had reached the top.

According to state officials, the onlookers' fears were justified: Grippo had allowed the older boys to make a perilous ascent and reach a point where "unknown dangers may lurk at the top of the cliff," Social Services attorney Minh Lequang argued at the hearing Monday.

"She's been placing the blame on innocent bystanders and state officials," he said. "She didn't provide adequate care and she has yet to take responsibility for her actions."

A witness to the incident agreed.

Gregg Petty, a 57-year-old retiree who taught rock climbing in his younger years, said he was disturbed that the boys wore no protective gear in a situation that promised "broken bones and a possible concussion" if they fell.

"I don't understand how a parent can allow a child to do that," said Petty, who testified against Grippo. "I'm not an alarmist. I love heights and I love being on the edge. But that's bad judgment on the part of the overseer."

To Grippo, the onlookers were well-meaning but misguided. She said the boys who reached the top took risks acceptable for children with the climbing skills she had helped nurture in them since they were toddlers. The younger boy was naked because he had been soaked earlier and his parents had not packed spare clothes.

Grippo climbed up the slope to ease her 4-year-old's fears and talk him down. She allowed a lifeguard to lead the two older boys down a closed trail at the side of the hill rather than have them climb down from the top.

"Coming down while people were screaming wouldn't have been good for the boys," she said. "And I didn't want to make people more afraid."

Despite the accusations against her, Grippo testified that none of the day-care parents have said they were upset. Some have contributed to her legal defense, and 58 supporters have sent the Department of Social Services letters on her behalf.

"She's been amazing for our family -- a godsend," said Nancy Werner, an engineer whose two children have been in Grippo's care. She said Grippo helped draw out her shy 5-year-old son. As for the boys on the hill, she said she wasn't disturbed to learn they'd gone to the top. "If I didn't know them or the situation, I would have been," she said. "But I've seen them climb."

During her hearing, Grippo contended that she had closed her home day care for the summer, and state licensing rules do not address outdoor programs for children. The state also accused her of hiring an assistant before a criminal check was completed. She admitted to the error, but pointed out that the woman had only a misdemeanor traffic violation.

A decision from Administrative Law Judge Humberto Flores is pending, but such decisions on child-care licensing appeals are only recommendations to Social Services. If the department refuses to go along with a positive finding, Grippo said she will file suit.

Meanwhile, she said she is certain that the boys were not in harm's way. The hill is "rich in handholds and footholds," she said. In court papers, her attorney likened the boys' safety to that of children swinging from trapezes "at a summer circus camp, staffed by experts in early childhood development."

"When I was growing up, no one would have blinked an eye at children climbing trees and hills," Grippo said. "Now, a lot of people feel pressured to keep kids as safe as possible instead of as safe as necessary."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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