Parents and owners of day care centers are questioning the decision of state regulators to fast-track approval of a new center at the building in Westbrook that was occupied by Lollipop Lane Educare.
On Friday, Norma Wolf, who co-owns a telecommunications firm, applied for and received a 30-day state license to operate in the building on Patrick Drive. The approval from Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services came in just hours, cutting short a process that other day care owners say took them weeks or months.
“The temporary license shocked me,” said Natasha Asali-Hurtubise, co-owner of Toddle Inn Child Care in Westbrook. “I hope (Wolf) has some child care background. . . . These aren’t puppies, they are children.”
“It definitely raises a lot of questions, and a lot of alarms go off in my head,” said Scott Grant of Portland, who toured Lollipop Lane two weeks ago while searching for day care for his 4-year-old daughter, Isabella.
“Who is this person, and how is it they are able to bypass . . . all the enforcements and codes and rules and regulations?” asked Grant.
He said Lollipop Lane declined to enroll Isabella early last week, citing a lack of openings.
The center shut its doors Friday, one day after its owner, AnneMarie Hebert, announced its closure. She said she could no longer pay her bills, which included a $1 million annual payroll and $27,500 in monthly rent. More than 200 children were enrolled at Lollipop Lane.
Steve Brier, executive director of The Little Dolphin School, which has day care centers in Westbrook and Scarborough, said he doesn’t “know what to think” about the state’s quick action.
“Usually, you need to get a conditional license through DHHS and then you need to meet both state and local fire codes. . . . It might take several months,” he said.
There’s no shortage of state regulations for day care centers — they can be found in a 96-page document on the state’s website.
State regulators stood behind their decision to grant Wolf a license Friday.
“(Wolf) was planning to keep the business pretty much status quo; to keep the present director in place, so things will go very smoothly,” said Catherine Cobb, director of the DHHS Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services. “Since it was transferring the business . . . we gave them a 30-day temporary license.”
While conceding that her agency doesn’t normally move so fast, Cobb said she is confident that the decision was right.
She said DHHS staffers met with Wolf on Friday and discussed an implementation plan. She said the agency will monitor the new center and do on-site inspections.
Cobb said the fast action will help save jobs and minimize turmoil for children and families.
“This center was licensed for a large number of children, and a large number of families were involved. It would have been a huge disruption. . . . This provides continuity for staff and families,” Cobb said.
The closing of a day care center can be a “crisis situation for families,” said Margaret Cushing, training and community outreach coordinator for Child Care Connections, a group that provides child care resources to families and day care centers.
“Being uprooted from a place that is safe can be devastating for a child. . . . And the parents risk losing their job,” she said.
Linda Elias, Child Care Connections’ executive director, said her staff is already working with Wolf, “answering her questions and guiding her in the right direction.”
Wolf did not return calls for comment Monday. She said during the weekend that she had always wanted to open a day care center and decided to act after she saw the scene last week at Lollipop Lane while picking up her 4-year-old son.
Parents were desperate to find new care, she said, and some were crying while holding their kids.
The new center, called The Wolf Den, is licensed to serve 200 children. It is unclear when it will open.
June Holman, owner of Hug-A-Bug Childcare in Westbrook, called the state’s decision unfair to owners of day care centers who completed the long application process.
In 2009, she said, the state declined to fast-track her application to take over Payson Street Child Care, which was closing.
“The owner of the building gave two weeks’ (notice) . . . and I talked to the state immediately and asked, ‘Is there any way we can do something?’ ” said Holman, who at the time had licenses for three day care centers.
Holman said the state told her there “was no way” to speed the process; regulators even insisted that she mail her application, rather than hand-deliver it.
“The rules are there for a reason, and I (was) not afforded the same luxury,” Holman said.
Brier, of The Little Dolphin School, said Wolf should be cautious and avoid the problems encountered by Hebert, the owner of Lollipop Lane.
“You need to go in with eyes wide open and know the economics of child care,” he said.
Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]