The owners of a Livermore preschool shut down last year covered babies' faces with blankets as they slept and occasionally used ties over infants' arms and legs two former employees told a judge Thursday during a preliminary hearing at the Gale Schenone Court House in Pleasanton.
Lida Sharaf, 33, and her sister, Nazila Sharaf, 36, owners of Sunnyside Preschool in Livermore, were arrested in April 2013 on suspicion of child abuse after a former employee filed complaints about the facility that included swaddling infants so tightly that they could not move.
The Sharafs, who were in the courtroom, are charged with seven counts of felony child abuse. They also face at least one civil lawsuit from a family whose infant was in their care when the allegations surfaced.
One of the employees to testify Thursday, child care worker Marcelina Vasquez, recalled that some infants at Sunnyside were tightly wrapped in thin blankets, which had ties over the legs or chest to keep them in place.
"The blanket was tied in a knot around their chest,," Vasquez told the court, who testified in Spanish through an interpreter.
Asked if she ever questioned her employer's actions, Vasquez said that she had, but was told that she didn't know how to handle infants because she hadn't completed training in early childhood education.
At least six parents were also present at Thursday's hearing, but were not called to testify. All declined to be interviewed, saying they had been advised by prosecutors not to make any public comments.
One of the parents in court Thursday was Jennifer Abbott, a Livermore resident who last year filed a lawsuit against the Sharafs, alleging that her infant daughter, who was four months old when she was brought to Sunnyside, developed difficulty breathing and rashes on her body as a result of being swaddled. She later became dehydrated and had to be taken to the hospital, according to the lawsuit.
Abbott declined to comment Thursday, but her attorney said the injuries the little girl had were made worse by improper care by the Sharaf sisters.
"These people were abusing children," said Bryan Lamb, an attorney with Lamb & Frischer law firm in San Francisco. "It's a tragedy."
Vittoria Bossi, an attorney for the Sharafs, said the Sharafs ran a clean facility, whose employees cared deeply for the infants and toddlers in their care.
"These women never intended to harm the children," Bossi said.
Swaddling is a centuries-old technique used to calm crying babies and induce sleep. But a 2007 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that it can increase the chances of respiratory infections. The babies in the Sharafs' care were also swaddled while blankets were placed over their faces, according to Department of Social Services investigators.
Last year was not the first time the state shut down a facility operated by the Sharaf sisters. In 2010, the California Department of Social Services closed Discovery Child Development Center, which was at the same location as the Sunnyside, for allegedly swaddling infants, tying children to bed posts and forging parents' signatures on consent forms. The property, a former elementary school, is owned by Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District, which is also being sued by the Abbotts.
"Livermore Unified knew or should have known that these people were bad actors," Lamb, the plaintiffs' attorney, said. "After they lost their license in 2010 they should have never rented the premises to them."
School district officials say they were never notified by the California Department of Social Services that the child care facility on their premises had been shut down because of violations, according to Chris Van Schaack, assistant superintendent of the district.
"They had a license, they had insurance and that's the criteria we look at," Van Schaack said. "The state doesn't notify landlords when a business loses their license. ... We had no indication it was the same people."
The hearing continues Friday.
Contact Karina Ioffee at 650-576-9626. Follow her at Twitter.com/kioffee.