A teacher's aide at a South Jersey Christian preschool has been accused in a lawsuit with sexually abusing four children under his care.
The aide was recently suspended from the reJOYce Christian School in Hainesport, Burlington County, and a criminal investigation is underway by the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office, according to lawyer Brian Kent, who filed the lawsuit.
The preschool is part of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church. The newspaper is not naming the teacher's aide because he has not been criminally charged.
His suspension was first reported by FOX 29 on Thursday.
Joel Bewley, spokesman for the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office, said in an email Friday: "Our office does not divulge the possible existence of a criminal investigation into a specific person or entity." He added that there "are no present charges against" the teacher's aide.
Kent, of the Center City Philadelphia law firm Laffey, Bucci & Kent, filed an amended complaint earlier this month on behalf of the parents of the four children against St. Paul's and its parent or support organizations.
All four children — two boys and two girls — attended the preschool last year and are now about 5 years old, Kent said Friday. The lawsuit contends the aide improperly touched the children's genitals.
It says that it is not clear when the alleged sexual abuse occurred, but that the abuse was reported in December by one of the boys and that afterward, the other children came forward.
The suit contends that the church's senior pastor, David Jost, and the preschool's then-director, who is the mother of the aide, waited almost a week to inform other parents of the allegations. The newspaper is not naming the preschool's then-director, as that would reveal the identity of the aide.
The mother no longer works at the school, Kent said. She, her son, and Jost are not individually named as defendants in the lawsuit.
A message left for Jost at the church and another for the preschool's former director on her home number were not returned Friday. A separate, publicly listed number could not be found for the aide. Kent said he believes the aide, who is in his late 20s, lives at his mother's home.
The lawsuit contends that as early as 2014, Jost received "numerous complaints from parents of children" alleging the aide behaved inappropriately with kids.
Jost at that time instituted a policy that the aide was not to be left alone with children at the preschool, but there was no action undertaken to enforce the policy, the suit says. Jost did not alert anyone but the aide's mother, who was the director of the preschool, the suit contends.
Following the more recent complaints in December, Jost, at a parents' meeting at the church that month, “for the first time, upon questioning and pressure from parents, revealed that he had received complaints from parents in early 2014 regarding [the aide's] interaction with children at [reJOYce], including [the aide's] behavior with children while in his lap,” the lawsuit contends.
Jost, according to the lawsuit, told the meeting that he now believed the aide should have been removed following the complaints, and that he was sorry he had not done so.
According to the aide's Facebook page, he began working at the preschool in late 2007.
"A lot of parents are concerned about their children having been exposed to him," said Kent. "He was there for several years."
Added Kent: "With regards to our children, we think it was 100 percent preventable because back in 2014, there were complaints that were lodged against [the aide] for acting inappropriately."
The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court, names as defendants St. Paul's and its parent or support organizations — the New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Evangelical Lutheran Education Association, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
It contends that St. Paul’s and the other organizations were negligent, among other things, in hiring, supervising, and retaining the teacher’s aide.
The state Department of Children and Families was notified of the most recent complaints, Kent said. Ernest Landante, a spokesman with the state child-welfare department, said by email Friday: "State and federal confidentiality laws prohibit us from commenting on or even confirming whether or not we are or were involved with a child or family."
Staff writer Melanie Burney contributed to this article.