A child who attended a day care center in Ellsworth for two years was separated from other children the whole time.

At a home-based day care in Fort Kent, a gun cabinet in a bedroom was left unlocked.

In Waterville, a woman who ran a day care in her basement often left the home, saying she was too stressed by the work. She left her husband – who laughingly called the day care room the “brat cave” – in charge, but he refused to change diapers, fearing it might lead to “allegations.”

Children at other day care centers were allowed to wander off, and in one case two toddlers were returned by drivers who saw them on the side of a busy road.

The 21 day care centers where those and similar incidents occurred in the last few years were allowed to operate under conditional state licenses in 2013. The reports on those centers were obtained by the Portland Press Herald on Friday through a Freedom of Access Act request to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The operators were expected to come into compliance with state rules, while caring for children, before the one-year licenses expired.

Parents were often in the dark about the conditional licenses. While notices of the change in license status and the investigators’ reports are supposed to be posted in public spaces at the centers, not all operators comply.

Four day care centers, including one that was operating under a conditional license from 2012, lost their conditional licenses last year when inspectors who did follow-up visits found that not enough violations were being corrected.

Two more were suspended on an emergency basis and the operators voluntarily surrendered their licenses – one who was found drunk and threatening suicide by a parent who arrived to pick up her child in August, and one whose husband was charged with sexually assaulting three of the children.

The incidents that prompted the DHHS to issue the conditional licenses were detailed in licensing inspections conducted in 2012 and 2013.

The reports reveal a wide range of violations, including the relatively mundane, such as record-keeping violations or failure to wash a baby’s hands after a diaper change. Many day care centers were found to be understaffed, or the operators and employees were cited for failing to keep up with training requirements.

Inspectors also found more serious problems, though few at the level of those cited at the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in Lyman.

A report by inspectors, written in August and obtained last week, said co-owner Cheryl Dubois grabbed a child by the biceps and slammed him or her to the floor, pulled chairs out from under other children, and forced children to put soap in their mouths.

The report said Dubois created a “toxic” environment that was unsafe for children and employees, but the day care center was given a conditional license and operated until early this month, when so many parents removed their children that it was no longer financially viable.

VIOLATORS RELUCTANT TO TALK

The reports from the DHHS show that:

In May, investigators put the Bright Beginnings Child Care Center in Houlton on a conditional license after staff members reported that the husband of owner Sharon Jackett would “ping” children by flicking them in the mouth with his index finger if they weren’t obeying.

Staff members said he also handled children roughly by pulling them off a bed by the arm or forcibly turning a child’s head.

The owner of Watch Me Shine in Ellsworth kept the day care center open on days when there was no heat in the building and the temperature fell to 55 degrees, forcing children to wear their winter coats indoors.

Watch Me Shine – the facility where a child was kept separate from other children for two years – also lost a child’s blood pressure pill. It turned up in another child’s cubby, and DHHS inspectors said it could have been fatal if another child had taken it.

The owner, Tiffany Petronis, told a parent who asked for child care records that it cost $500 to produce them and the fee was required by the state. That is not true.

Some of the day care operators who were contacted by the Press Herald on Friday refused to talk. Others have gone out of business and couldn’t be reached.

Terry Fourtier, who owns Days of Wonder in Caribou and was cited for a handful of violations, including open access to a pond near a play area, said, “I don’t think it’s anyone’s business” when she was asked about her conditional license.

She didn’t reply when asked if she has the notice of the conditional license posted publicly, as required by law.

Some operators who agreed to talk blamed overzealous inspectors.

Peggy Ouellette, whose home-based operation in Fort Kent was cited for 14 rule violations and given a conditional license in May, said her inspector was new and “wrote me down for every little thing,” while her previous inspector often let minor violations slide.

Ouellette said incidents like a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old walking away from her home – they were found “a considerable distance” away, next to a pond,” the report said – had nothing to do with her conditional license, even though it was cited in the department’s notice as a violation.

“She was very unfair with me,” Ouellette said of her inspector.

She said she considered appealing but decided it wasn’t worth the time or cost. She said she is still operating her day care and no parents have removed their children.

SOME EAGER TO EXPLAIN

Colleen Brown, who operates a home-based day care in Presque Isle, said the DHHS was unresponsive when she tried to come up with a plan for dealing with her nine-year-old pit bull, which often was in the same room as children.

A licensing report said the dog barked and nipped at Brown’s boyfriend when he put the dog in a room away from the children during an inspector’s visit.

Brown said she agreed to put the dog elsewhere if she left the room but DHHS didn’t respond to her proposal until she called Gov. Paul LePage’s office to complain.

“They were right quick to agree then,” she said, approving the plan the next day.

Brown, who got another pit bull in November, said inspectors haven’t been back since January 2013, even though the department says day care centers that are given conditional licenses are supposed to be inspected three or four times during the one-year term.

Other operators said they worry that the public will think that all day cares on conditional licenses have been cited for physical or emotional abuse of children.

“My conditional license had nothing to do with abuse or neglect,” said Melissa Geaumont, who operates a home-based day care in Gorham and received a conditional license in September. “Please don’t put me in the same category as the place in Lyman.”

Geaumont’s conditional license was issued largely because she was serving more children than allowed, and because three employees had not been given background checks.

She also was cited for putting children in portable cribs in bedrooms in her home. Although that’s a violation, Geaumont said all of the parents were aware of it and had no objections.

Geaumont said she considered applying to become a center-based facility, which would have allowed her to serve more children, but she learned that it would have required costly home improvements and increased her taxes.

“The reason my parents like me is because I offer a center-based environment but a home-based price,” she said. “If you shut down all these home day cares, a lot of people won’t be able to put their kids anywhere.”

Geaumont said she has a hearing scheduled with state officials next month and hopes to remove the conditional tag from her license.

Staff Writers Eric Russell and Matt Byrne contributed to this report.

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

emurphy@pressherald.com