A day-care center in Lyman where state investigators found that a co-owner was “abusive, humiliating and intimidating” to employees and the children in her care has closed its doors.

The co-owner, Cheryl Dubois, “grabbed a child by the biceps and slammed the child down onto the floor,” made a child put soap in his or her mouth, pulled a high chair out from under a child, and threatened to bite a child, according to a report on the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Despite the findings of its investigation last summer, the state issued the day-care center a conditional license, giving it a year to show that it could comply with state rules, correct the behavior and fix record-keeping violations.

The change in the license and the findings of the investigation were supposed to be posted publicly, but Daniel Dubois, the other co-owner, said he did not post them because the business appealed the state’s decision.

DHHS spokesman John Martins said the department is barred from addressing specific cases so he couldn’t discuss why the day-care center’s license was granted conditionally, rather than revoked.

In 2013, he said, the state oversaw about 850 day-care centers and preschools – not including home-based day cares – and issued 22 conditional licenses and two revocations. Those numbers do not include providers who decided to close voluntarily after getting conditional licenses, he said.

Daniel Dubois denied the allegations in the report and blamed them on disgruntled former employees. He said the business closed a week ago because parents’ reaction to the findings made it impossible for the operation to continue.

He said parents who withdrew their children behaved “like the people with their torches going to get Frankenstein. They’re making this place sound like the house of horrors, but it’s not true.”

QUESTIONS RAISED OVER TREATMENT

Danielle Pouliot of Kennebunk said she pulled her son, Kayden, out of the day-care center in July after he got bruises, once under his chin and a second time on his face. She said she heard concerns from other parents and questioned the owners’ explanation about how her son was bruised.

Pouliot said she was told that he slipped out of a chair “while fooling around,” which caused the bruise under his chin. He got the bruise on his face, she was told, when he bumped his head on a lunch tray.

She said the Duboises failed to tell her about the bruises, even though state regulations say injuries must be documented in daily reports and shown to parents.

Pouliot said she also learned that her son was force-fed milk when he refused to drink it, something the DHHS report said happened to more than one child.

Sara Bachelder of Biddeford said she took her two children out of the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in early 2012, after a former employee told her how her daughter, who was about 4 at the time, was being treated. Bachelder would not provide details, but said her daughter was called names and humiliated by Cheryl Dubois.

Bachelder said she volunteered at the day-care center weekly and never saw any signs of problems, but that “a red flag was the staff turnover.”

Cheryl Dubois told her that turnover was a common problem in the industry, Bachelder said.

FINDINGS OF REPORT APPEALED

The DHHS report said “at least two former employees have obtained unemployment insurance after leaving … Sunshine Child Care Center due to the stress and anxiety they experienced as a result of the treatment by Dan and Cheryl Dubois.”

The report said the couple did not effectively train or manage their workers, and that Cheryl Dubois yelled and swore at employees and children.

The Duboises didn’t accept responsibility for their actions, the report said, and instead blamed staff members and “disgruntled parents.”

“The totality of all of the dynamics in this child care creates a toxic and unsafe environment for children to be present in, as well as staff persons,” said the investigator’s findings.

Daniel Dubois said the day-care center sent the DHHS a written appeal of the decision to issue a conditional license.

Apparently separately, Cheryl Dubois appealed a finding that she had committed physical abuse and was told by the DHHS Office of Child and Family Services that the determination would be overturned, so the finding would not be reported to licensing agencies.

The letter from Glenda Hamilton, a secretary in the Office of Child and Family Services, said a determination was made that the risk posed by Cheryl Dubois “is not severe enough” to warrant the finding or a report to licensing agencies.

Daniel Dubois gave the Portland Press Herald a copy of the letter, with some words blacked out because it contains names or “things we don’t agree with,” he said. He would not provide a complete copy of the letter.

Martins said the DHHS could not immediately find the letter, or comment on it.

Dubois said he interpreted that letter as clearing the business, even though it did not refer to the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool.

He said that because of the letter, and the “witch hunt,” neither he nor his wife attended a DHHS appeal hearing last month. The hearing apparently did not affect the day-care center’s license; at the time it closed, it still had a conditional license.

CENTER ALSO INVESTIGATED IN 2012

The Sunshine Child Care & Preschool also was investigated in 2012, and the DHHS issued a letter noting that state rules require a day-care center to be operated with “mature judgment.”

It pointed out that violations of regulations include yelling at staff members in front of children, calling children names, forcing children to eat or drink against their will or withholding food and drink, restraining children in high chairs or car seats, and using corporal punishment.

“This includes hitting children in the mouth, grabbing them by the arm, slamming them on the floor, slapping them, grabbing their hair or pushing a child’s face into a mat,” said the letter in October 2012.

The letter did not accuse Dubois or staffers at the day-care center of those actions. It concluded that the DHHS was not changing the day-care center’s license, “but wanted to bring to your attention information that was gathered as a result of the investigation.”

Bachelder, the mother from Biddeford, said that investigation began after she and other parents complained.

The investigator told her that the allegations couldn’t be substantiated, she said, but there was little doubt they were true. She said she was told that they were what the department calls “indicated findings,” low to moderate in severity.

Bachelder said she has continued to push the DHHS to investigate the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool and tried to get other parents to withdraw their children, to the point that she got a cease-and-desist letter from the day-care center’s lawyers last year.

Bachelder said she holds the state responsible, for not being aggressive in pursuing the allegations.

“DHHS was asleep at the wheel,” she said.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com