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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Leslie Smoot Charged With Child Cruelty

Aired July 9, 2003 - 20:34   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. Two boys apparently forgotten in an SUV outside a Lancaster, California Daycare Center died of heat expose yesterday. They were the foster sons of the center's owner. Jennifer Davis from affiliate KCAL has more.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAURA FOUNTAIN, DAY CARE WORKER: I don't believe it. I didn't think she'd ever do that. She's not that kind of person. I wouldn't expect that at all. She brings the kids in every day to their class and I think it was just an accident or too busy or something.

JENNIFER DAVIS, KCAL CORRESPONDENT: Laura Fountain works at a Child's Place no one knows the answer to the question of how this happened. Why a 3-year-old and 5-year-old little boy were left in a sweltering SUV, strapped in their car seats, in nearly 100-degree heat by their foster mother.

The brothers died of heat exposure. Now 48-year-old Leslie Smoot is in jail, facing charges of child cruelty. Smoot is not only a foster mother but a day care mom.

FOUNTAIN: She's a real nice person, caring, understanding.

DAVIS: Today the day care is silent but there are small reminders of what happened here yesterday. This foster mother brought her children to leave a toy and say a prayer for these young boys.

SHANNON RANDALL, MOTHER: I know how careful you need to be with these children. These are other people's kids and they're entrusted to you, you need to take care of them, better than anybody.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: That was Jennifer Davis of affiliate KCAL reporting and we're going to carry on this story now. Naeemah Edwards' daughter Cemia Garcia (ph) has attended the day care center for 3 years, since she was 6 months old. Naeemah Edwards joins me here this evening. Thanks for being with us.

NAEEMAH EDWARDS, MOTHER: Thank you.

ZAHN: How well did you know Leslie Smoot, the woman who ran the center with her husband?

EDWARDS: I've known her pretty good. I've known her for three years. I never would have thought something like this would have happened. She seems to be a good day care provider for my daughter as well for other people's kids.

ZAHN: And did you get to see her interact with her foster children as well as her biological children?

EDWARDS: Some foster children, the older ones, that were working at the day care also.

ZAHN: And how did things appear to you?

EDWARDS: Everything seemed okay, everything seemed fine except the older daughter, she got fired and I think it was because she got pregnant or something like that.

ZAHN: But as I understand it, you did have some concerns from time to time, although you thought your daughter was getting good care, that there was a lack of supervision. What bothered about you?

EDWARDS: Well my daughter was calling home with write-ups, incident reports, gashes on her eye and different things like that, and...

ZAHN: Which can happen when kids are playing with each other but were you concerned that it was something different than that?

EDWARDS: Well my daughter came home one day and told me one of Miss Leslie's foster children was pinching her, the one that worked there, Miss Veronica, she said she was pinching her. And I brought it to Miss Leslie's attention and she told me it will never happen again and she brushed it off.

So I felt -- I just felt that I wanted my daughter to continue going there because she's been going there for three years and she knows all of the kids and likes playing there. She likes being there, so I left her in there until yesterday, until this happened.

ZAHN: Yes, and when you heard this news, what was your reaction?

EDWARDS: Oh, wow, I was shocked. Yes, basically I was shocked. And I immediately started finding another place for her to go. I looked for another place. I took her out of there.

ZAHN: There are a lot of unanswered questions tonight. Miss Smoot has given a couple of different accounts to police and they're trying to sort through those accounts. Thank you for sharing your story.

Right now Rita Saenz is the Director of the California Department of Social Services. Her department is investigating the SUV incident. She joins me from Sacramento tonight. Welcome. First off, had there ever been any formal complaints filed about Miss Smoot or her daycare center?

RITA SAENZ, DIRECTOR, CA. DEPT. OF SOCIAL SERVICES: Well, let me assure you that when there is a complaint, and Mrs. Edwards makes a good point, we encourage people to make complaints. We provide information on where to call us. Had any substantiated complaints been made about this woman, we would have immediately initiated an investigation and we would have taken whatever action was appropriate to ensure that either the activity was not happening or that she would no longer provide child care.

ZAHN: Apparently, according to a number of published reports this evening, Leslie Smoot has told investigators that she, quote, forgot the children were in the car. Now isn't leaving children unattended in the car, in a car in California, a crime?

SAENZ: There is no reason why an adult should not know that it is inappropriate to leave a child in the car, aside from common sense, two years ago, Governor Davis signed a law that required extensive education of the public so that this kind of tragedy would be avoided and made it a crime. Anywhere from a misdemeanor to manslaughter.

This is -- this type of incident happens -- last year happened about 30 times across the country. There's no reason for it to happen.

ZAHN: It's too early on in the investigation to understand exactly what went wrong here, right? In your judgment, given what the law is, you're saying there is just no innocent explanation for this. I mean one account had her telling investigators that she had gone into the daycare center and she was expecting someone else, one of her attendants to go out and get the children and she got busy and five years --excuse me, five hours late they made this painful discovery.

SAENZ: Regarding any criminal activity we're cooperating with the police and we will leave that to their judgment. But regarding our licensing policies, she will be excluded from participating in any of our licensed facilities from now.

We hold people who care for our children to extremely high standards in this state.

ZAHN: Rita Saenz, thanks for you time tonight. The Director of the California Department of Social Services. Good of you to join us.

SAENZ: Thank you.

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