More than four months after the state sanctioned a Lyman day care center for safety violations that included “slamming a child onto the floor,” the center Friday was still listed as a high-quality child care facility on a Maine Department of Health and Human Services-affiliated website.
According to www.childcarechoices.me, which is contracted by the state to give parents information on day care centers, the now-closed Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in Lyman was given a “Step 3” rating, the second-highest possible. The center was removed from the website Friday afternoon.
Since Aug. 28, Sunshine had been operating under a conditional license for a host of violations detailed in a nine-page report filed by DHHS inspectors. A conditional license means that day care centers have one year to fix significant problems.
The Child Care Choices website painted a much rosier picture of Sunshine, as Step 3-rated centers are supposed to have “no substantiated licensing violations within the past two years,” meet “regulatory standards” and have “higher amounts of staff training and education.”
John Martins, the Maine DHHS spokesman, said in an email response to questions that he does “not have an inner working (understanding) about how information is shared and how this particular web portal is updated.”
The owners of Sunshine Child Care closed the center last week even though its conditional license still allowed it to operate.
“Clearly, we need to look at this process closely and make sure that recent licensing action is reflective in the data that exists on the Web,” Martins said.
Sunshine co-owner Daniel Dubois denied the charges to the Press Herald earlier this week, and said parents are “making this place sound like the house of horrors, but that’s not true.” Dubois, who also described the accusations as a “witch hunt,” couldn’t be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
Even though a ranking system for the centers is posted online, Maine does not post state inspection reports, but Martins wrote in his response that the state is looking to do so. Maine is one of 18 states that do not share such reports online, making it more difficult for parents to discover violations from inspections, experts say.
Sara Bachelder of Biddeford, a parent who pulled her daughter out of Sunshine in 2012 after hearing complaints from other parents, said not having the reports online is a major issue because parents can’t easily find out whether their child’s day care center has problems. Bachelder said she’s still trying to obtain records about Sunshine Child Care from the state, which released some reports to her but refused to give her others. She said that because no reports are posted online, until late last year it didn’t occur to her that she could ask for them.
“They (DHHS) ought to be ashamed of themselves,” she said.
Martins in his response wrote that parents can have reports sent to them if they request the information from DHHS.
Maine was ranked 47th for its oversight of child care programs, in part because of its lack of online transparency, by Child Care Aware of America, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
The state is also the sixth-worst for the number of inspectors relative to the number of child care centers, with only one inspector for every 179 centers, according to the group.
Child Care Aware recommends that states conduct four inspections per year for each facility, and employ a ratio of one inspector for every 50 child care centers, to ensure that centers are monitored correctly. Martins said inspectors have a “challenging” workload but are managing it “successfully.” In Maine, the centers are inspected annually, and inspectors also respond to complaints, he said.
Michelle Noth McCready, public policy director for Child Care Aware, said Maine’s lack of inspectors gave the state the “lowest possible score in that category.”
Overall, Maine’s oversight and transparency are among the worst in the nation, McCready said, adding that Maine also does a poor job of performing background checks on day care workers.
“States are all over the map with their licensing regulations. We have some states that do the bare minimum,” McCready said. She said Maine is better at requiring worker training and instituting safety practices for its staff, but oversight is so limited there’s often no way to know if day care centers are complying.
And without inspection reports available online, it’s difficult for parents to know how much oversight the state is performing, McCready said.
Martins wrote that the state is looking at putting the inspection reports online, although he did not provide a timeline for doing so.
“Maine is moving toward establishing such a Web presence,” Martins wrote. “We have attended national workshops on this topic and are … identifying what it may require in terms of time and resources to implement an online reporting system.”
McCready said that posting inspection reports online is an effective way to keep child care centers accountable, and for centers that are run well, they can be a way to advertise their services.
“If they want to get more business, they know that the parents are looking at the websites,” McCready said.
Sunshine was given one year to correct problems after the state concluded that the center was a “toxic and unsafe environment for children to be present in.” The violations included force-feeding children milk and threatening to bite a child. Co-owner Cheryl Dubois was also “abusive, humiliating and intimidating” to children and staff members, according to the DHHS report.
When asked under what conditions the state would give a day care center a year to correct problems, rather than revoking its license, Martins wrote that centers are given one-year conditional status when “there are deficiencies that are significant in nature related to overall quality of services being provided, 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.”
Martins said that “when a situation poses immediate risk of serious harm, injury, or death to children, enforcement action will move into the revocation realm.”
In 2013, the state oversaw about 850 day care centers and pre-schools, not including home-based day cares, issuing 22 conditional licenses and revoking two.
Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland and House chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said the state is not keeping proper tabs on day care centers.
“It is really quite infuriating,” said Farnsworth, who used to lead Woodfords Family Services, which at one time operated four child care centers. “Once again, the department is failing to do its job.”
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: