Kiddie Kollege testing under way; deadline looms

Posted: August 08, 2012

Soon after Garrett Cuffy began a long day of psychological testing to learn whether his exposure to mercury at a day-care center had lingering effects, he bolted.

The 9-year-old found his grandmother in an adjoining room and demanded to know why the tester was asking whether he ever had suicidal thoughts and whether he believed he was normal.

Garrett "marched into the room two or three times and asked, 'What kind of question is this, and what does this have to do with mercury?" said the grandmother, AnnLynne Benson.

Garrett is one of about 35 children who has been evaluated this summer, six years after the contaminated Kiddie Kollege day care in Gloucester County was shut down and 18 months after a judge ordered the testing.

Benson gently told her grandson to cooperate with the testing a few weeks ago because the family, concerned about his well-being, wants answers.

More than 100 infants and children were exposed to mercury vapors in the Franklin Township day care for a year or more after it opened inside a closed thermometer factory that harbored dangerous levels of toxins.

James J. Pettit, lead counsel for a class-action lawsuit seeking medical monitoring for the Kiddie Kollege children, said he was "very disappointed" with the number of children who had signed up to participate. The firm mailed letters to parents and advertised "free testing" in two newspapers.

Parents have until Friday to sign up their children with his office or one of the two neuropsychologists assigned to the task.

The children take a battery of cognitive tests of attention, memory, hand-eye coordination, personality, and ability to organize information, said neuropsychologist Jonathan Wall of Hunterdon County, N.J.

Testing began in late April, Petit said, and is expected to finish by the end of August. It is expected to be repeated annually, depending on the children's needs.

Pettit and four other law firms sued the state, county, town, the owners of the building and the day care, claiming their negligence exposed children to mercury, which can cause brain, nervous system, and kidney problems.

All levels of government had oversight over the day care, yet they failed to prevent the day care from opening without a proper cleanup, a judge decided in January 2011. The owners of the building also were liable, the court said, because they had failed to verify that the cleanup was done.

Benson, who regularly babysits Garrett at her Clementon home, thought the full day of testing was a bit intense for a child. It started at 9 a.m. and ended a little after 6 p.m., she said. Also, she was surprised it focused on psychological issues, rather than potential "central nervous system" problems that mercury exposure can cause.

Still, Benson said, she was grateful for the opportunity to have her grandson, who attended Kiddie Kollege from age 18 months to 3 years, seen by the specialists.

"I'm concerned about my grandson's welfare and I want to get all the help for him that's forthcoming from this funding," she said, referring to a $1.9 million fund the court established for the testing. "I want to find out what his status is compared to a child who was not exposed to contamination, and, if they find out there's something, what they can do for him."

Garrett's mother, Catherine, said she was "relieved they started the testing" and was anxiously awaiting the results.

Tina DiSilvio, whose two toddlers attended Kiddie Kollege, has not decided whether to get them evaluated.

After waiting four years for the Kiddie Kollege trial to be scheduled, and then hearing all the parties deny blame for what happened, DiSilvio said she had become discouraged.

"I think the window of opportunity has been missed," DiSilvio said. "Five or six years ago, I would have been more apt to do this."

DiSilvio also said she was upset that Superior Court Judge James Rafferty's ruling wasn't implemented for more than a year while various legal arguments were heard.

Even now, the township's lawyers are planning an appeal of Rafferty's negligence finding, and the children's lawyers are considering an appeal over their legal fees.

DiSilvio said that she supported the class-action lawsuit and monitoring because she wanted a database to be established to detect whether the Kiddie Kollege children were developing more medical problems than children not exposed to mercury.

But now, DiSilvio said, too many years had gone by to get a good picture and to set up a database. Soon after Kiddie Kollege was closed, she took one of her daughters to a psychologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia because she thought the girl's aggressive behavior might have come from her exposure to mercury. The findings were not definitive, she said.

Still, DiSilvio said she wanted to do her part. "I'm still wrestling with it . . . I feel it's kind of moot, but then the guilt comes in."

Parents of Kiddie Kollege children can contact neuropsychologist Jonathan D. Wall at 908-890-8844 or Jonathan Mack at 609-890-8844 for an appointment before Friday.

Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or or @JanHefler on Twitter. Read her blog at

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