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State records detail prior allegations of abuse against Bethel's Peter Tony

Suzanna Caldwell and Eli MartinAlaska Dispatch
Marilyn Tony and Peter Tony Courtesy Kimberley Bruesch

A Bethel man under investigation for abusing children over a 40-year period was the subject of multiple allegations of abuse during his tenure as a licensed foster parent, state records reveal.

Records released Tuesday by the Alaska Office of Children’s Services on Peter and Marilyn Tony’s foster care profile refer to five reports of alleged sexual abuse by Peter prior to the report in 1998 that finally caused the couple’s foster care license to be revoked.

Tony, 69, was arrested on June 13 in Bethel, charged with abusing a 4-year old girl between 2011-12. The girl was at a daycare facility Tony and his wife operated after the foster care license was revoked. Alaska’s Department of Health and Human Services has confirmed that the Tonys were not licensed daycare providers but instead operated on an informal basis.

Peter and Marilyn Tony first applied for and received a foster care license in 1984 in Bethel. It was abruptly terminated in May 1998 after OCS social workers found reports of sexual abuse by Peter Tony to be substantiated.

The Tonys have lived in the hub city of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta since November 1977, when they moved from San Diego. Peter Tony was raised in Marshall, a small Yukon River village in western Alaska, and wanted to return to the area after serving in the military.

Taking in the most needy

Hundreds of pages of state documents laid out the history of Marilyn and Peter Tony’s foster care home. 

The Tonys – in particular, Marilyn – were generally well regarded by numerous social workers and DFYS supervisors who dealt with the couple during the 13 years they were licensed by the state.

Documents outline numerous courses Marilyn Tony took over the years to learn to care for children with severe emotional needs or disabilities. These included classes on such topics as “self destructive behaviors,” “cocaine babies” and “coping with hyperactive children.”

Among the youngsters the Tonys took in:

  • Children with severe psychological and social problems needing to work on social skills and impulse control;
  • Teenagers who still needed help learning to clean themselves;
  • Numerous children with severe fetal alcohol syndrome; and
  • Children who had previously been placed in dozens of homes.

“These foster parents have dealt with many of the Division’s most needy foster children in our region," say several requests for augmented funds repeated over multiple years. "These foster parents are very giving and accepting of their foster child and are willing to work with their foster children on a daily basis to help counteract the foster child's dysfunctional behavior."

They were also licensed as an emergency foster home, taking in children in urgent situations for periods as brief as a single night.

Total number of children unclear

The total number of children -- including special-needs children -- who spent time in the couple’s home is unclear. While some documents outline when children stayed with and left the Tonys, there's no clear document outlining how many children were in the home on an annual basis.

The Tony home was licensed to care for four to six foster children at a time, though the couple often took in more children than they were licensed to keep, as dozens of waivers to exceed their license capacity permeate the file.

The Tonys often asked for and received brothers and sisters or children with special needs that could not be housed elsewhere. According to the files, the waivers were granted every time.

Occasional tensions

Despite the good will, evidence of tension between social workers and the Tonys appears in some documents.

In 1994, for instance, Marilyn Tony asked the department to “tear up” her foster care license, frustrated that foster care payment checks often arrived late.

A letter from social worker Teresa Perry described Marilyn Tony as “irate and belligerent” at times and that her actions had left some foster children feeling rejected.

Even Mary Atchak, a longtime state social worker for the Alaska Division of Family and Youth Services (DFYS) and self-described friend of 20 years, asked Marilyn Tony if she no longer wanted to have telephone calls “like I've been receiving” since it “does neither of us any good for either of us to become upset and angry.” She wrote that in 1995 after being pestered over late foster care payments.

Atchak also wrote a letter in 1992 apologizing for the handling of a case involving Peter Tony, who was suspected of being drunk at a public gathering while caring for a child, according to documents.

This complaint was found to be invalid, though it took more than three weeks to investigate the issue.

“I am hoping that you will find it in your heart to forgive (DFYS) in taking such a long time to complete the investigation … I will not waste your valuable time in reading all the excuses I can give,” Atchak wrote in a cover letter to the 1992 report.

“... We appreciate you taking these difficult-to-place children. These children, without your tender loving care, would not have the home they desperately need," Atchak continued.

The incident and subsequent investigation became “emotional” at times, according to the report that accompanied Atchak's letter, though precisely why it was characterized that way was unclear.

Abuse allegations

DFYS had received reports of child abuse by Peter Tony as early as 1982, two years before the Tonys became foster parents. Kimberley Bruesch, Peter Tony’s stepdaughter, said that she and her younger sister, Teresa, reported assaults by him to the state social worker Atchak in September of that year.

Alaska Dispatch reported earlier this month that Atchak was allegedly involved in a past romantic relationship with Tony, according to a former employee of the Anchorage Community Action Agency who knew Marilyn, Peter, and Mary in Anchorage in the late 1960s.

Earlier this month, the Alaska Office of Children's Services, the state child welfare agency that succeeds now-defunct DFYS, said it would be impossible to locate records related to the 1982 allegations because of looser standards for maintaining files at the time. Yet records delivered to Alaska Dispatch in response to a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that reports of abuse by Tony -- in his capacity as a foster parent -- first surfaced in 1988.

On March 23 of that year, John Gaisford, Social Services Manager of Alaska’s Western region, detailed allegations in a letter to the Tonys, in which he also exonerated them of any wrongdoing.

Gaisford reported that a mentally ill girl in the couple’s foster care had alleged being abused by Tony, but that the report could not be substantiated. It appears the girl’s reports were not believed on account of “her medical condition and psychiatric treatment” at the time.

Next, in August 1992, reports of abuse appeared again. Mary Atchak, in a letter to the Tonys, made reference to “possible sexual abuse in your home” that took place “approximately ten-twelve years ago.”

Atchak, in the brief official letter, did not elaborate, saying only that the case was unsubstantiated. She might have been referring to the allegations brought to her attention by Bruesch and her sister in 1982, which mark the earliest known reports against Peter Tony.

No other reference to reports in 1982, or at any other point prior to the couple licensure as foster parents, was found in the records.

In 1995, 11 years into his tenure as a foster parent, Tony faced three separate reports of abuse – with Atchak having a role in investigating all three. None of the reports appear to be substantiated.

In March 1995, Georgina Kacyon, an intake supervisor for the DFYS, wrote to Marilyn that a report had been marked “unconfirmed” and the case closed. Kacyon referred Marilyn to Atchak as the relevant social worker for any further concerns.

Third 'report of harm'

Then in June, DFYS supervisors asked Atchak for the findings of a report on sexual abuse that had been received in mid-May. This was to help decide whether to re-approve the Tonys’ foster-care license. Atchak’s response is not contained in the records, but the Tonys continued in that role.  

A third “report of harm” was made to Atchak in October 1996 by a foster child. Writing to the Tonys in February 1997, again in her  official capacity as a social worker, Atchak stated this case was “invalid and closed.” She told the couple that the alleged victim was “too tall” for her reconstruction of the scenario of abuse to make sense.

Because OCS redacted the names of all children in the Tonys’ home, it cannot be discerned whether the 1995 reports were filed by a single victim or more than one person. OCS declined to comment on Wednesday about the information released.

Atchak, who served on and off as a social worker in Bethel between 1977 and 2004, is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and is unable to comment on reports of abuse against Peter Tony, or on whether there was a past romantic connection. Atchak's husband, Peter, declined to comment Wednesday and said he didn’t know anything about the contents of the records.

Sex abuse claim 'substantiated'

In 1998, DFYS received another report of abuse by Peter Tony, and this time found the allegation to be “substantiated.”

On May 7, a foster child in the Tonys’ home reported being assaulted by Peter. On May 10, Teresa Strang, a DFYS social worker, was assigned to investigate the report. The following day, the victim in question was removed from the Tonys’ home and the couple’s license was revoked.

In a case assessment report dated July 20, 1998, Strang judged the risk of abuse as “high” due to “substantiated sexual abuse.”

She also noted that while the victim in question disclosed her abuses at Tony’s hands on more than one occasion to DFYS workers, the Bethel Police Department was unsuccessful in trying to obtain a disclosure.

Information from a 2013 affidavit written by Bethel police investigating officer Amy Davis suggests that the victim in question was 12 at the time.

On July 11, 2013, Tony was charged with three counts of abusing this victim between January and May 1998. He sits in Bethel jail and is scheduled to go on trial beginning Aug. 26.

As a division of the Department of Health and Social Services, neither DFYS nor its successor, the Office of Children’s Services, have the ability to file criminal charges against a suspected abuser.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com and Eli Martin at eli(at)alaskadispatch.com.