State lawmakers said Tuesday that they will consider introducing legislation to strictly regulate child care centers in Maine, in response to reports of abuse at a day care center in Lyman that included a child being slammed to the floor.
Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, said state laws must better protect children by tightening standards and giving the state more enforcement tools. He said the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in Lyman should not have been allowed to operate after the state cited it for abuse.
Farnsworth, a former director of Woodfords Family Services, which provides child care, said he will look into submitting an emergency bill in the current session.
“It is absolutely unacceptable, that’s all there is to it,” said Farnsworth, House chair of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “There’s too much leeway given to the owners of the centers.”
The owners of the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool closed it two weeks ago. The day care center was given a conditional license in August and operated for more than four months before closing, despite a finding by the Department of Health and Human Services that it was a “toxic and unsafe” environment for children. The center’s owners, Daniel and Cheryl Dubois, had appealed the state’s findings.
According to state officials, 21 other day care centers are operating on conditional licenses, and two others lost their licenses in 2013. The DHHS released the list of the 21 centers in response to a Freedom of Access request by the Portland Press Herald last week. The list includes the names of the operators but not the names of all the day care centers or their locations.
The Press Herald has requested investigatory reports on the 21 day care centers with conditional licenses and the two whose licenses were revoked. The DHHS has said the reports will be released within a few days.
Child care centers that operate under conditional, one-year licenses are typically given 30 days to correct problems, John Martins, the DHHS spokesman, wrote in an email response to questions.
While no such timeline was indicated in the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool’s conditional license, according to public documents, the license did require the owners to comply with the requirements immediately, Martins wrote.
“In this case, the provider appealed its conditional licensure, which delayed the department’s ability to establish and enforce a conditional license,” Martins wrote. “The provider has a right to an administrative hearing.”
The violations cited by the DHHS included force-feeding children milk and threatening to bite a child. Co-owner Cheryl Dubois also was “abusive, humiliating and intimidating” to children and staff members, according to the DHHS report.
Co-owner Daniel Dubois denied the charges to the Press Herald last week, and described the accusations as a “witch hunt.”
Farnsworth said he will request more inspectors in the state budget, perhaps nearly doubling the staff at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars.
With about a dozen inspectors, Maine has one of the nation’s worst ratios of inspectors to day care centers, according to Child Care Aware of America, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Overall, Maine ranks 47th for its child care oversight program, according to Child Care Aware. Maine inspects centers once per year and in response to complaints, while some states inspect centers four times per year, according to the group.
Sen. Colleen Lachowicz, D-Waterville, said new laws should be considered in light of the case in Lyman.
“I’m sure many parents will want to feel confident that similar issues are not happening at the day care their children are going to,” she said.
Maine’s laws must be tougher on poor-performing child care centers, said Bill Hager, public policy director for the Alliance for Children’s Care, a Maine association that advocates for the child care center industry.
“It is very difficult to close down a day care in Maine,” he said, but rooting out bad child-care centers would be better for parents, children and the industry.
“The consequences of getting it wrong are so severe for children that we need to err on the side of safety,” Hager said.
Requiring additional background checks would help prevent future problems, he said. Maine does not require checks on day care centers’ owners or employees regarding crimes committed in other states. He said that’s a significant loophole, because if a day care owner or employee with a criminal record moves here from another state, Maine officials may not know about it.
Brett Williams, 36, of Sanford said he and his wife, Hannah, withdrew their infant son from the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in 2011 after being dissatisfied with the service and noticing that the staff seemed tense and anxious.
“There’s definitely a hole in Maine’s laws,” he said. “It seems like there’s more laws protecting the rights of the day care center owners and workers, and not many rights for parents and children.”
Hager said his group has lobbied for tougher laws and more enforcement, but the state has been resistant to change.
“There’s always been a strong anti-regulatory stance in Maine. (Inspecting child care centers) frequently is not seen as essential,” Hager said.
Maine is one of 18 states that do not publish reports of child care center inspections online, although Martins has said the state is moving toward doing so.
Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, said he finds the accusations “troubling” and he is willing to examine whether new state laws are needed.
“Common sense would dictate that this is something we should take a look at,” he said.
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: