It was one of my mother’s finest moments.

Mom had just returned home after giving birth to the seventh of her eight children. During the few days she was in the hospital, she and my father had hired a seemingly nice older woman – we’ll call her Mrs. M – to keep our hectic household on track and maybe stick around for a day or two more to help Mom ease back into her Herculean maternal responsibilities.

Ah, but Mrs. M was not the grandmotherly type my dear parents thought she was. Left alone with us kids, the woman was a tyrant.

One night, while Dad was at the hospital, Mrs. M sent yours truly to my room without dinner. She’d found a broken picket on the fence around our patio and, despite our assurances that it had happened months ago, she decided on the spot that I was the culprit and thus I had to be punished. (My sister, God bless her, smuggled half of her dessert up to me on her way to bed.)

So many were our grievances against Mrs. M that Mom, walking through the door with her new baby in her arms, took one look at our faces and knew instantly that something was not right.

I remember trying not to cry as I quietly whispered to her how mean Mrs. M had been not just to me, but to all of us. The next thing we knew, Dad was carrying Mrs. M’s suitcase out to the car and, just like that, the woman was history.

I thought about that long-ago intrusion into an otherwise happy childhood last week as the news spread about the now-shuttered Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in Lyman.

The state-licensed day care center somehow managed to keep operating for months despite a laundry list of abusive acts against children, all documented by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Still, for reasons it has yet to clearly explain, DHHS did not see fit to immediately revoke the center’s license.

We’re talking about, according to the state’s own investigators, “a toxic and unsafe environment for children to be present in.”

It was a place where Cheryl Dubois, who operated the center along with her husband, Dan, had been observed pulling a high chair out from under a child who then fell – hitting a table on the way down and ending up with a bleeding and bruised chin.

It was a place where Dubois reportedly wrapped an infant so tightly in a blanket that the crying child’s eyes grew bloodshot, where she dealt with a child who bit another child by threatening to bite the aggressor herself, where she put soap in kids’ mouths and force-fed them when they balked at drinking their milk.

It was a place from which kids came home with bruises – always an accident, of course – and where confidential information about one family was openly shared with another.

Yet for all these red flags, discovered during a state investigation last year (the second in as many years), DHHS saw fit only to downgrade Sunshine Child Care & Preschool to a “conditional license.” That allowed it to keep operating, provided the Duboises cleaned up their act within a year.

“A conditional license is issued when there are deficiencies that are significant in nature related to overall quality of services being provided and safety of the children served and/or there have been repeat deficiencies over time and the licensee has not made the necessary corrections to come into full compliance with the licensing regulations,” explained DHHS spokesman John Martins in an email on Friday.

“There is clear evidence of the failure of the licensee to comply with the applicable statutes (laws) and rules.”

Uh-huh. So … what does it take to shut such a place down?

“When a situation poses immediate risk of serious harm, injury, or death to children, that tips the enforcement action into the revocation realm,” Martins continued.

Or, as occurred in this case, the marketplace takes over: Despite Dan Dubois’ less-than-convincing claim that the whole mess stems from two disgruntled employees and that the parents who have pulled their kids out in droves in recent weeks acted “like the people with their torches going to get Frankenstein,” the good news here is that the center shut down earlier this month for lack of paying customers.

The still-troubling news, however, is that the people Maine parents trust to ensure that the local day care center is operating on the up-and-up appear more interested in the rights and reputations of the providers than in the health and welfare of the little tots left in their care each day.

Consider this excerpt from a letter sent to Cheryl Dubois by the state’s Office of Child and Family Services back in November when she successfully appealed a finding that she had been physically abusive toward a child.

“In judging the level of risk that your children are in, we have determined that the risk is not severe enough for us to make information about this determination available to employers or licensing agencies,” the letter states. “Therefore, if an employer or licensing agency in a child care field asks us whether you have any child protective history, we will not report that determination … (and they) will not be able to tell from our answer whether you have been involved in the child protective system.”

Even though she has. And even though, at the same time DHHS’ Child and Family Services was giving Cheryl Dubois a squeaky clean record, DHHS’ Licensing and Regulatory Services had already slapped her with a conditional license for exposing the kids in her charge to a “toxic and unsafe environment.”

Little wonder that the parents, accused by Dan Dubois of being on a “witch hunt,” are still fuming.

And little wonder that when the national clearinghouse Child Care Aware of America ranked all 50 states (along with the Department of Defense and the District of Columbia) for their “oversight standards” in inspecting child care centers and posting those findings on the Internet for all to see, Maine came in a dismal 50th with only three out of a possible 40 points.

This while a cadre of eight new DHHS welfare investigators, at an annual cost of $700,000 to us taxpayers, continue their needle-in-a-haystack search for “welfare fraud” that so far is being measured in tenths of a percent of the total number of Mainers receiving benefits.

Apples and oranges, you say?

Maybe so. But it’s hard not to peel back the rocky history of Sunshine Child Care & Preschool and wonder if a little reallocation of DHHS’ precious resources might be in order here.

Enough with the welfare cops. It’s time DHHS hired a few vigilant mothers.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com