The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is evaluating whether it needs more child care center inspectors and whether laws regulating such centers should be updated, state officials said Monday after news reports of abuse at a Lyman day care became public this month.

“Our investigators are meeting the demands of the job today, but their caseloads are sizable,” John Martins, the DHHS spokesman, said in an email response to questions from the Portland Press Herald. “We are evaluating national best practices and standards as they pertain to caseloads to better evaluate if additional staff may be needed.”

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee will likely hold a hearing within the next two weeks to hash out how the state regulates child care centers.

Maine ranks among the worst states for oversight and in terms of the number of inspectors per child care center, according to Child Care Aware of America, a national advocacy group that conducts state-by-state evaluations of child care programs. Maine’s number of inspectors per capita ranks 47th among the states, the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense. The state employs a dozen inspectors who oversee about 850 day cares.

“Clearly, if they’re going to be doing more oversight, they need more people,” said Bill Hager, public policy director for the Alliance for Children’s Care, a Maine association that advocates for the child care center industry. Hager said the industry needs more oversight.

“We should be building more unannounced (inspection) visits into this system,” he said.

Maine inspects the centers once a year and in response to complaints. By contrast, some other states inspect centers routinely four times a year, including Florida, Missouri, New York and Virginia, according to Child Care Aware.

In response to a Freedom of Access Act request filed by the Press Herald, DHHS on Friday released reports on 21 day care centers that were given conditional licenses in 2013, as well as two day care centers whose licenses were revoked. The reports detailed incidents of toddlers wandering off “considerable” distances, operators keeping centers open with no heat, and other problems in various day cares across the state. Some centers had more mundane problems such as staffing or sanitary issues, according to the reports.

DHHS officials have already said the department is moving ahead with plans to put all inspection reports online and to notify parents when their children are the subject of an abuse investigation. The state is also considering more stringent background checks on employees and owners, and will also look at whether laws need to be updated.

“We continue to evaluate the need for statutory and regulatory amendments,” Martins wrote.

Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland and House chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said he’s calling a hearing because he’s concerned that the problems are systemic as a result of understaffing in the inspection department.

“Having kids wander off is really disturbing,” Farnsworth said. “What if they had been hit by cars and killed?”

The Lyman day care, Sunshine Child Care & Preschool, received a conditional license in August 2013. The inspection report 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, among other violations.

The center stayed open for more than four months after being granted the one-year conditional license, and closed on its own in January, after reports of abuse became public and parents pulled their children out of the center. The report said Dubois created a “toxic” environment that was unsafe for children and employees. Co-owner Daniel Dubois denied the accusations, claiming the center was the target of a “witch hunt.”

Farnsworth said one issue the committee will be examining is whether the state law is too lenient or vague about shutting down a delinquent center. He said perhaps the law needs to be more clear on when the state should step in.

Currently, the state revokes licenses when “a situation poses immediate risk of serious harm, injury or death to children,” according to Martins. Child care centers can be given conditional licenses 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.”

Hager said the wording in state law gives child care centers too many opportunities to stay open even when children are being put in harm’s way.

“We are always amazed when someone gets shut down, because it happens so infrequently, and is so hard to do,” Hager said.

State officials admitted that they “could have done a better job” in the Lyman case, and will be reviewing why the center was allowed to remain open. But Farnsworth said that beyond the Lyman case, other serious problems that surfaced at day care centers make him wonder whether laws need to be changed.

The problem is not only the laws, but a state staffing issue, Hager said. He said that according to reports he’s heard from some day care centers, the state is granting conditional licenses and then not regularly following up with inspections to see if the centers are complying with the conditions.

Although no official follow-up report is done after a conditional license is granted, Martins said the state does keep tabs on centers operating under conditional licenses.

“We follow-up at the facility within 30-60 days following receipt of an acceptable plan of correction (from the center),” Martins wrote in the email. “We also conduct periodic unannounced visits to monitor and assure that the provider is compliant with conditions throughout the year.” Martins said the state has the power to void a conditional license if the operator fails to follow the plan.

He did not say whether the state had conducted reinspections of all 21 day care centers on conditional licenses or had voided any conditional licenses after reinspections.

Sara Bachelder of Biddeford pulled her child out of Sunshine Child Care in 2012 after she became dissatisfied with the care. She said she’s been contacting parents and former workers and connecting them with the state, trying to force a change in how the state oversees centers. Bachelder said the state is not doing enough to respond to the problems.

“They’re avoiding the questions and talking around the edges of the issues,” she said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

jlawlor@pressherald.com

Twitter: @joelawlorph