ALLENTOWN, Pa. (KDKA) - A council member and former mayoral candidate in Allentown, Pennsylvania, was charged Tuesday with child endangerment after prosecutors said she took a runaway teenager to a tent encampment used by homeless people, where he was subsequently solicited for sex.
The council member, Democrat Ce-Ce Gerlach, denied any wrongdoing, and her lawyer slammed the Republican district attorney over what he suggested was a "political hit job" meant to destroy Gerlach's career.
Gerlach was working as a homeless outreach caseworker when she gave the 16-year-old boy a tent and other supplies, took him to an Allentown encampment known as "Tent City" and asked a resident there to look after him, according to the Lehigh County district attorney's office.
The boy spent parts of two days and one night at the camp before another caseworker spotted him there. He told police he was solicited for sex in exchange for a cigarette and saw prostitution and fighting, authorities said.
Gerlach was charged with endangering the welfare of children and failing to report suspected child abuse, both misdemeanors. She was arraigned Tuesday and released on unsecured bail, according to the DA's office.
In a written statement distributed by her attorney, Gerlach declared that she has "never committed a crime in my life and that includes the current allegations against me. ... I refuse to allow these allegations to distract me from my service to the people of Allentown."
Gerlach, a longtime community activist and former school board member who was elected to City Council in 2019, entered the race for mayor but lost in last month's Democratic primary.
The incident for which she was charged took place about a month after Gerlach began working at Valley Youth House, an organization that serves thousands of at-risk youth and their families in 23 Pennsylvania counties.
The 16-year-old told police he had called the organization's hotline last July and was put in touch with Gerlach, who was on duty. He told her he had run away from home and needed a place to stay. Gerlach took him to Tent City and asked a man who lived there to look after him, prosecutors said.
The man, who had lived at the camp for six years, described the teenager as a "young skinny kid that was scared to be there and not capable to taking care of himself," prosecutors said. He said Gerlach told him she had tried to place the boy at a YMCA but was unsuccessful because he was a minor.
A day later, prosecutors said, a caseworker for another organization saw the boy at the encampment and knew he should not be there because of his age, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said Gerlach failed to immediately notify the state's ChildLine abuse reporting system about the boy, as state law required. Prosecutors also said she could have contacted police or Lehigh County child welfare authorities instead of taking him to the encampment, where police have been called dozens of times over the past year.
In a statement that did not name Gerlach, Valley House said Tuesday it suspended an employee in May during its own internal investigation, then fired the person.
"Our number one priority is the safety, protection, and well-being of the young people served by Valley Youth House," said the statement, issued by Senior Vice President Christina Schoemaker.
Gerlach's lawyer, Ettore J. Angelo, accused District Attorney Jim Martin of releasing a statement about the case that "poisons the justice process" against his client.
Angelo said one of Martin's deputies contacted him earlier Tuesday with a threat from Martin himself: that "if Ms. Gerlach or I contacted the press about her legal appearance today that there would be no discussions about possible resolutions."
He called it a "devious" move, considering that Martin issued a lengthy recitation of the case while Gerlach was being processed at the county jail.
Angelo questioned whether Martin had launched a "political hit job to destroy the career of a woman who spends her every working hour fighting for the downtrodden."
A message was left with Martin's spokesperson seeking comment on the allegation.
(Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
for more features.