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Sunday, September 4, 2016
DA: Five police incident reports in Lower Southampton 'gifted' child case not public records
September 4, 2016
The Bucks County District Attorney’s Office says five police “incident” reports filed in 2014 and last year involving the home of a Lower Southampton man awaiting trial in the high profile case of a child who allegedly was "gifted" to an older man are not public records, citing them as part of a “criminal investigation.”
Assistant District Attorney Joanna Dombrowski, the office’s open records appeal officer, determined a sixth incident report involving Lee Kaplan, 51, was a public record, and this news organization was entitled to access to it. That Nov. 22, 2013, report involved one of Kaplan's neighbors complaining that Kaplan was openly burning trash on his Old Street Road property.
Lower Southampton police identified the six incident reports in response to an open records request this news organization filed following the June 16 arrest of Kaplan. He is accused of sexually abusing a now 18-year-old woman and fathering her two children, ages 9 months and 3 years old. Police allege the woman’s ex-Amish parents “gifted” her to Kaplan when she was 14 after he helped her parents financially.
Lower Southampton police denied the Right to Know request, saying the documents requested are protected as “criminal investigative records” under the state’s Criminal History Records Information Act. The request sought access to records, including public and resident complaints, welfare checks, police visits, citations and violations to Kaplan’s home covering Jan. 1, 2008, to June 21, 2016.
The news organization appealed to the state Office of Open Records, which transferred the appeal to the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office for a final determination. The district attorney's office released its determination — supporting the initial denial of the records — on Aug. 26.
After reviewing the documents, Dombrowski denied access to five reports, citing them as “related to a criminal investigation,” and not public records. The reports were filed June 30, 2014; July 7, 2014; July 23, 2014; Oct. 29, 2014; and April 28, 2015, according to the determination. The document does not describe the records beyond calling them “incident reports.” The source of the reports is unknown.
This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching Lower Southampton Public Safety Director Robert Hoopes for comment on the nature of the incident reports and if they relate to the case against Kaplan.
Dombrowski declined to confirm if the documents denied to the news organization were related to the “gifted child” case or any other investigation involving Kaplan, citing state law that prohibits comment on the content of criminal investigation records or reports.
Lower Southampton police faced public criticism that they did not act sooner after neighbors complained about suspicious activity at Kaplan’s house, where authorities say he lived with the alleged victim, their two children, and her nine sisters ranging in age from 3 to 17. Police said the victim's children and her siblings do not appear to have been abused.
The alleged victim and the 11 children were discovered after a neighbor called a child abuse hotline with concerns about the welfare of children living in Kaplan’s house, which prompted Bucks County Children and Youth Social Services Agency workers to do a welfare check. The social workers were accompanied by Lower Southampton police and resulted in the arrests of Kaplan and the young woman's parents.
The young woman’s parents are charged with endangering the welfare of children and her father is charged with conspiracy. This news organization is not identifying the parents in an effort to protect the identities of the children. All three defendants remain in Bucks County prison awaiting trial.
In response to neighbors' claims that they contacted police earlier about Kaplan and the children, Hoopes acknowledged that neighbors had contacted police, but the complaints mostly involved nuisance issues, such as trash-burning, overgrown grass and animals. Some complaints included a passing mention of girls in Amish-style clothing, and nothing to suggest they were in danger, he said.
Bucks County emergency dispatch records for Kaplan's property from Jan. 1, 2008, through June 21, 2016, did not show any calls suggesting concerns about children. The 911 records — also obtained through a Right to Know request — show that police responded to nine calls involving Kaplan’s address, including a chimney fire, reports involving alleged violations of local ordinances, harassment and a civil complaint. There were no 911 calls involving the home in 2010, 2012, 2013 or 2015, according to the records.
Previously, police sources confirmed that Lower Southampton police visited Kaplan’s house in 2014 after they received a complaint about excessive smoke from an outdoor grill. During that visit, police officers saw a small child, a baby and an older woman, later identified as the mother of 10 of the children found at Kaplan's home in June. Kaplan, who claimed he was Amish, said the older woman was the wife of his business partner and that her family would also be living in his home while their Lancaster home was renovated, a police source said.
As mandatory child abuse reporters in Pennsylvania, police are required to report any complaints or incidents involving suspected child abuse or neglect to child welfare officials for investigation. Police also have the ability to conduct a parallel criminal investigation involving suspected child abuse or neglect, according to child welfare advocates.
Police officers are not obligated to forward information to child welfare authorities if they don’t suspect abuse or neglect occurred, a standard that is far more broad and nuanced than the evidence threshold for criminal behavior, child welfare advocates said.
Child welfare agencies, however, are required to forward information to law enforcement if an alleged abuser doesn't fall under the state definition of a perpetrator under the child protection law or an abuse or neglect report involves a possible crime, under the child protection law.