Melissa Geaumont, whose home-based day care in Gorham is operating on a conditional license, said she has a “black mark” against her for a year because of minor problems reported by a state inspector, and even if she makes improvements during that time, no follow-up report will be written.

“When there are improvements and corrections, the state should notify the parents of the improvements and corrections,” said Geaumont, who was cited for serving more children than her license allows and noted that her day care’s violations had nothing to do with abuse or neglect. “Your license should be updated, and everything should be documented.”

Her complaint highlights what critics are citing as another weakness in Maine’s system for inspecting day care centers: a lack of follow-up reports to indicate whether progress is being made.

Department of Health and Human Services officials said Wednesday that they are open to changes in the system, and that the entire way Maine operates its child care inspection program is being evaluated.

The system has been under a microscope since a day care center in Lyman closed early this month, almost five months after it was given a conditional license despite investigators’ findings of abuse. The report said the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool was a “toxic and unsafe environment” for children, in which a co-owner slammed a child to the floor and force-fed milk to children.

The day care center disputed the findings, but closed as parents withdrew their children.

When a child care center is put on a conditional license for violating state regulations, an inspector makes an unannounced follow-up visit, typically within 30 to 45 days, said Kenneth Albert, director of the DHHS Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services. No formal follow-up report is done, he said, but the inspector writes a short note in the state’s computer system indicating what was observed.

“Operationally, it has not been identified as a need to produce (follow-up) reports,” Albert said. “Having said that, I am very open to any and all changes in practice that we need.”

The Portland Press Herald has requested copies of the notes and the dates of follow-up visits at the 21 day care centers in Maine that were put on conditional licenses last year. Without those documents, it can’t be determined how often the state meets its goal of visiting a day care within 45 days of issuing a conditional license.

Geaumont said she got the first follow-up visit at her day care in Gorham on Wednesday, about four months after she received her conditional license, in September.

Albert said that when violations aren’t corrected, a report is generated, the conditional license is voided and the state shuts down the day care. Last year, two of the 21 conditional licenses were revoked because improvements weren’t seen in follow-up visits.

TWELVE INSPECTORS FOR 850 DAY CARES

It may be difficult for the state to meet its goal of making follow-up visits within 45 days, considering that Maine has among the fewest child care inspectors per capita in the country, according to Child Care Aware of America, a national advocacy group that does state-by-state evaluations of child care programs.

The state has positions for 12 inspectors, to oversee about 850 day care centers.

Some states, including Virginia, New York and Missouri, routinely inspect day care centers four times per year. Maine does one inspection per year, and responds to complaints.

Albert said the DHHS is determining whether more inspectors are needed. To produce more reports, the state would likely need more staffing.

“It’s appropriate and prudent for us to look at the caseloads of our employees,” Albert said, but state officials must be careful not to overstaff and should be “good stewards of taxpayer money.”

Albert said changes to the DHHS management structure allowed child welfare inspectors to more freely communicate with day care inspectors, and that improved enforcement in 2013. Only five conditional licenses were issued to day care centers in 2012.

Tracy Ramsey, who provides day care in her home in Calais, was cited for violations that didn’t involve abuse or neglect, including being out of the permitted worker-to-child ratio for a few hours. She said inspectors should write up reports throughout the year when her property is revisited.

Ramsey also said inspectors interpret the law in various ways, so it’s difficult to comply.

“They all say something different. It becomes hard to ascertain what they’re looking for,” she said.

Ramsey and Geaumont said they don’t like being lumped in with day cares that have problems of abuse and neglect.

State reports show that some of the day care centers that were put on conditional licenses last year had children wander away, had unlocked gun cabinets or operated without heat.

“I was mortified,” Geaumont said, when she saw her name on the same list as the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool on the Press Herald’s website. “I have a reputable reputation and great pride in this day care.”

NOTIFICATIONS TO PARENTS LACKING

Geaumont said she is seeking a waiver from the state that would allow her to have a few more children in her home-based day care without being classified as a child care center. She is licensed to care for 12 children and was cited for having 14 or more, according to the state report.

Geaumont said she has a 4,000-square-foot home and can handle a few more children, but if she were classified as a center-based day care, she would have to pay an additional $15,000 in property taxes because her home would be taxed as commercial property.

Geaumont said she was discussing the issue with the state before the was cited, but couldn’t get answers because the person she was dealing with left that state job.

She said the system for conditional licenses should be a tiered system, letting parents know immediately whether the licenses are given because of serious issues or minor problems.

Follow-up reports should be done and put online next to the initial inspection reports, said Bill Hager, public policy director for the Alliance for Children’s Care, a Maine association that advocates for the child care center industry. That way, parents can see how child care centers respond to state sanctions.

“It’s a pretty big hole in the system,” he said.

The state has indicated that it is moving toward posting the inspection reports online, although it is about a year away from doing so. 

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

jlawlor@pressherald.com

Twitter: @joelawlorph