Grandmother says child in program left at park

OBSERVER Photo by J.M. Lesinski. Pictured is Chang-Hu Park in Gowanda.

GOWANDA — An incident that took place on the first day of the village recreation program has one local family shook up and looking for answers.

Gowanda resident Nancy Scott came to the village board Tuesday and informed officials of what’d happened a week prior. “I wanted to make you aware of something that happened last Monday at the summer recreation,” Scott began. “I don’t know if Mark Benton is here. I know he’s the director of the program.”

From the beginning, Scott was visibly shaken and fought back tears as she spoke. “Last Monday, my grandson, my sister has custody of him, and signed him up for the program,” she said. “Monday, the first day, the babysitter, we’re holding her accountable, but I need to hold Mr. Benton accountable.”

She continued to say, “I don’t know what the program consists of, but the information I got from Kevin Stapleton, the teenage volunteer there, he said ‘they have hundreds of kids and they sign themselves out. They trust the kids. They say the parents are there and they let them go.”

This leniency in policy, or “over-trust,” ultimately led to Scott’s grandchild, Carter, being left alone in the park after the program. “My grandson was unaccounted for. He was left at the park, 7 years old, by himself, for almost two hours,” Scott said, now in tears. “The babysitter’s phone ran out of minutes, so I talked to Mark after, and he told me he called the three numbers they have. He left a message on the other two numbers.”

Scott went on to say, “What kind of policy is there, where you let a child sign themselves out? It ends at 2 p.m. and Kevin said all the adults leave right at 2 p.m., so there’s a discrepancy in time … but Mark said that he looked all around the park and there were no kids.”

From the park, Carter had reportedly gone to a friend’s house, and due to a lack of communication on multiple fronts, things got even more confusing. “Mark told me that Gerard Capozzi’s son was playing with my grandson, and took him to his house, offered to give him a ride home and asked where his parents were,” Scott stated. “I don’t know if Carter (the grandson) said this to him or somebody else, but he said ‘my parents are dead,’ because my daughter is dead and he doesn’t know his father.”

While Carter was at the Capozzi’s, Scott’s daughter went to the park looking for answers. “I called my other daughter and she was able to go down to the park and ask the kids there questions,” Scott noted. “They said they saw him there. Maybe 3:15 p.m. they went to Gerard Capozzi’s, who happened to know that Mark was the director, and Mark came and picked him up.”

Those in the park, unaware of whose parent is who, sent the Scotts into a spiral of terror with their next response. “The kids didn’t know who that was, and they told my daughter that ‘a man picked him up,'” Scott said. “We went to my sister’s house and he wasn’t there, and me and my daughter freaked out for hours thinking he was kidnapped by a man.'”

Off that statement, Scott broke down in tears and took a more incensed tone with the board. “How could this happen? What if he was kidnapped? He’s 7 years old!” she stated. “What are the policies? Why does Mark leave an hour after the program starts and comes back an hour before it ends? That’s what Kevin said, so what do the kids do all day?”

Calming down, Scott then closed out her comments to the board. “I want to make sure this doesn’t happen again to anybody else,” she said. “I want an apology to my grandson. He doesn’t want to go back. He’s afraid, he’s been having stomach aches and headaches for a week, and he’s lived through hell enough.”

Deputy Mayor and Youth Recreation Liaison Carol Shiebley responded to Scott very kindly. “I will say Mr. Benton made me aware of your concern,” she noted. “I will talk to Mr. Benton. I understand the problem was after the playground hours. I’m certainly willing to talk to Mr. Benton.”

Mayor Dave Smith also replied, “I understand your passion and I would be doing the same you are in your shoes. I wasn’t there, I don’t know … however, that’s not an answer. From this point on, we will make sure that every staff member employed by the village knows that the park is checked, double-checked, triple-checked and remain on sight until the last child is picked up.”

Smith went on to state, “Those kids are our responsibility. We take that on when we do the program. … This was not good. I only thank the good Lord that it didn’t turn out worse than it did, but we have a young child that’s traumatized because we didn’t make sure that all the kids were accounted for. That will change, effective immediately.”

Smith then took Scott’s number down to arrange to personally sit down and apologize to Carter.