PLEASANTON -- Two sisters facing charges they endangered infants' lives by binding them too tightly in swaddling blankets at a Livermore preschool are both expecting babies of their own, family members said Thursday after a court hearing.
Sisters Nazila Sharaf, 35, and Lida Sharaf, 33, appeared in a Pleasanton courtroom Thursday afternoon, a day after they were arrested at their homes in Dublin and Mountain House on felony child abuse charges. Both women let their thick hair fall in front of their faces to avoid being seen in court and were wearing large, red jumpsuits that concealed their pregnant bellies.
"They are greatly embarrassed ... mortified by where they are," said Timothy Rien, the sisters' defense attorney. "They are obviously shaken by the condition they're in."
The sisters were arraigned on three counts of felony child abuse and neglect and four counts of misdemeanor child abuse and neglect, stemming from an investigation by Livermore police into their care of infants at Universal Preschool LLC, at 1040 Florence Road. A plea hearing was scheduled for Monday.
Ferdinand Benitez, who is the father of a 22-month-old son with Lida Sharaf, confirmed reports from jail officials that both women are pregnant. Lida Sharaf's second child is due in July, and Nazila Sharaf is 4½ months pregnant and also has a son, who celebrated his 9th birthday the day of his mother's arraignment, Benitez said after the hearing at the Gale-Schenone Hall of Justice in Pleasanton.
Both women are in protective custody at Santa Rita Jail, officials said. Bail was originally set at $700,000 for each woman but was reduced to $340,000 during Thursday's court proceedings.
"There is a fight ahead in this case," Rien said. "First is the fight over bail, and then there's a fight over the charges themselves."
A dozen family members and friends showed up to support the pair, while several parents and others attended the hearing to show their outrage about the alleged abuse at the preschool.
Hank Dedrick, who belongs to the Alameda County chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse, attended the hearing with two other members to show support for the victims' families.
"We support them from womb to tomb," Dedrick said. "As far as I'm concerned, if you hurt a child like that you completely destroy their soul."
Although swaddling is a common technique used to lull newborns to sleep, the Sharafs allegedly put seven babies in danger at the day care center by binding the infants' bodies so tightly they had trouble breathing and couldn't move their arms and legs, police said.
The Sharaf sisters maintain that they in no way intended to hurt the babies with their swaddling methods, Rien said.
"Their contention is that it is not abuse," Rien said. "But nobody is going to take away from a parent their concern for their child when they are in someone else's care."
Doctors examined all of the children who were at the day care center, and none showed signs of injury related to the alleged abuse, Officer Steve Goard said.
State officials closed the Livermore facility on March 15 and are seeking to permanently revoke the women's license.
Investigators said that both Nazila and Lida Sharaf are suspected of tying blankets around seven infants between the ages of 7 months and 11 months so tightly they restricted the babies' ability to breathe and move their arms and legs. The women secured the wrapped blankets with heavy-duty knots for a "lengthy" period of time, Goard said.
Police also learned that the women sometimes threw blankets over the children's faces while the infants had their arms and legs bound, rendering the babies virtually incapable of rescuing themselves if they needed air. Perhaps most disturbingly, Goard said, is that of the seven children identified in the case, both Sharafs knew that three of the babies had upper respiratory conditions.
"They basically restrained these children, almost like a boa constrictor," Goard said. "All of these children could have died in the process of binding these extremities."
A police statement released Wednesday also suggested that Nazila Sharaf had grabbed the arms of at least three infants out of frustration and carried them across the room by their extremities, which could have caused a broken arm, torn ligament or spinal fracture. Police also said that the Sharafs would crank the heat in the room up to 75 to 80 degrees under the assumption that it would cause them to become sleepy.
Thirty parents of 19 infants were interviewed during the investigation, police said.
The investigation began on March 15, after the Department of Social Services requested their assistance in closing the center. Social Services reported multiple licensing violations discovered during an unannounced visit March 12, including inappropriate swaddling techniques.
Swaddling is a common technique used on newborns where a caregiver wraps the infant in a blanket in a snug yet comfortable way to reassure them and help them fall asleep, officials said in reference to pediatric experts. The technique, which is prohibited by state licensing, is usually intended for newborns between 1 month and 2 months old.
Lida Sharaf had previously operated another child care facility, Discovery Child Development Center. In 2010, the state Department of Social Services shut that facility down for a similar swaddling offense, according to department spokesman Michael Weston.
Lida Sharaf agreed to sell her facility and give up her rights as a licensee at that time, Weston said. In return, the department agreed to allow her to continue to work and be a presence at a child care facility, so long as she was not the licensee or the owner.
In 2011, Nazila Sharaf received a license as the owner of Universal Preschool, which reopened at the same location with Lida as an employee.
No criminal action was taken at that time, as that case was not submitted to law enforcement, Goard said.
Investigators found at the school that there was a large distance between the door and the back room where the babies would sleep in their cribs, and that the sisters could easily tell when someone was coming and make modifications to the sleeping arrangements, Goard said.
Other violations discovered during Social Services' visit to Universal Preschool in March included an infant sleeping in a car seat and another in a high chair, and finding that there were more children at the center than the license allowed.
When officials arrived to serve the shutdown order, they also found a person caring for children who had not had a background check performed.
The state's complaint also accuses Lida Sharaf of asking a Social Services inspector to conceal evidence or not report the violations. In addition to a temporary suspension order against the facility, Social Services issued bans against the Sharafs from working at any state-licensed child care facilities, Weston said. The women filed an appeal to the ban, which will likely trail the criminal proceedings.