Sara Bachelder of Biddeford did everything she could think of to ensure her children were in good hands at Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in Lyman.

She stopped by, unannounced, for random visits and inspections. She volunteered in the day care to get to know the staff and watch them interact with her children. She joined the parents’ committee. She also called the state of Maine’s licensing department to see if there were any complaints lodged against the day care.

“I did everything you’re supposed to do. I don’t know what else I could have done,” Bachelder said. “Everything seemed fine. It looked so good at Sunshine. It’s like you can’t trust anyone.”

For working parents, few things are more important than finding quality child care. But parents in Maine face a host of challenges in reaching that goal, from a state database that’s out of date and difficult to search, to overloaded inspectors who have caseloads that are three times the recommended number, to a lack of rigorous background checks on day care workers, national specialists said.

Those problems crystallized last month at Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in Lyman, where reports surfaced of serious problems that included a co-owner slamming a child to the ground. Sunshine had been operating since Aug. 28 under a conditional license for a host of violations detailed in a nine-page report filed by inspectors from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The license meant it had one year to fix significant problems.

The owners denied the allegations of abuse, but Sunshine closed on its own in early January – four months after the state sanctioned it – after several parents pulled their children out of the center.

The state has 721 child care centers, and another 1,259 home-based child care options, according to Child Care Aware of America, a nonprofit advocacy group. There are about 55,863 children under the age of 6 in the state who potentially need child care, at least part time, Child Care Aware said.

Average day care fees depend on the age of the child, with infants costing the most since they require a higher ratio of staff to children than older kids. In 2013, child care for infants at a center cost as much as $9,360 a year in Maine, which is roughly the U.S. average, where the price ranges from $4,850 to $16,450 a year. Full-time care for children in a home-based child care setting is less, totaling about $6,760 for infants. That compares to the national range of $3,950 to $11,050 annually, according to Child Care Aware.

‘I FEEL LIKE I’M TRAUMATIZED’

The only red flag to potential problems at Sunshine that caught Bachelder’s attention was the high rate of staff turnover, but the owner always had a good explanation of why each employee was moving on to a new job, she said.

It wasn’t until a staffer called her at home that Bachelder heard about abuse of children at Sunshine in May 2012. She immediately pulled her children out and sent them to the YMCA of Southern Maine in Biddeford, where she had once worked and knew the staff.

“I feel like I’m traumatized. I called our new child care center about 15 times to make sure everything was going smoothly,” Bachelder said. “I was still a wreck.”

Sunshine co-owner Daniel Dubois has denied the charges to the Press Herald, saying parents were “making this place sound like the house of horrors, but that’s not true.” Dubois, who described the accusations as a “witch hunt,” couldn’t be reached for comment.

While every family situation is different, parents’ need to find a safe, caring place for their children every day is universal.

“Maine parents are not alone in (their struggle to find) quality child care,” said Nick Vucic, senior government affairs adviser with Child Care Aware of America. “Nationwide it’s very difficult to find child care, let alone affordable child care, let alone quality affordable child care. It’s a huge challenge for parents nationally to find a safe, quality place to care for their child and to get a quality education for their child.”

In Maine, it’s a slightly bigger challenge. The state ranks 47 out of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense for its child care oversight program, according to Child Care Aware. The group also notes that Maine doesn’t require the use of fingerprint checks for care providers, does not post inspection reports online and requires providers to have only a high school degree or a GED (general educational development) test.

“There’s nothing more important than finding a safe place for your child,” said Katie Coppens of Portland, who started looking for child care for her daughter while she was still pregnant. “We found that many places had a waiting list or gave priority to families with siblings already at the center. Some places didn’t have openings at all. And other places we just didn’t get the right feel for. You get a sense when you walk into a day care. You get a vibe. It’s hard to explain.”

Coppens finally found a place for her daughter at a church-based day care in South Freeport, only because Coppens’ husband, Andrew McCullough, had gone there when he was an infant. One of the staffers who cared for him still worked there and knew the family.

“If we hadn’t had that connection, we never would have gotten in. We should have started sooner – as soon as we found out we were pregnant, we should have started calling. But it just wasn’t on our radar that early,” Coppens said.

A COMPETITIVE MARKET

Some families feel more comfortable with the intimate, relaxed and flexible nature of a home-based child care center, while others are equally passionate about more formal center-based care centers with more structure, said Leah Deragon, a founding director of Birth Roots, a Portland education and support center that focuses on pregnancy and the first year of childhood.

“Who your child is spending all day and all week with is a crucial decision,” Deragon said. “A child spends the majority of their waking hours in child care.”

Some decisions are dictated by finances, with nannies being the costliest option at about $15 an hour in southern Maine. Child care centers can cost as much as $10 an hour, while home-based centers can cost $5 to $8 an hour, Deragon said. Other factors that dictate child care choices include the commute distance from home or work, she said.

“There are so many factors that go into making these decisions. And the younger your child is, the fewer slots are available and the more competitive the market is. Once a child gets to be 3 years old, there are more options,” Deragon said. These include pre-school options and the fact that there are more slots available for older children because the child-to-staff ratio is much different than it is for infants, she said.

Sonja Howard, director of Maine Roads to Quality, the early care and education career development center at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, said it is crucial for parents to ask questions and be their own best advocate for quality care.

“I do think it’s a challenge locally. It’s really important for parents to judge the quality of centers and there’s not a lot of benchmarks available,” Howard said.

The DHHS-affiliated website childcarechoices.me lists day center centers and home-based day cares in a search by town, city or ZIP code. While the site is intended to be a resource for parents, it lacks crucial details, such as inspection reports and information on whether centers are operating with conditional licenses, which are issued when significant violations of state regulations are found.

“We’re seeing the disaster stories when you take money out of the system,” said Cheryl Walker, president of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children. “Maine was once ahead of the curve. But we’re reaping the results of cutbacks.”

In 2012, the budget cuts forced the DHHS to close Maine’s Child Care Resource Development Centers, which provided day care referral services, as well as training and education for child care providers. When the system was dismantled, DHHS took over the referral and information component, while Maine Roads to Quality took over the training aspect. The website childcaremaine.org helped families navigate quality ratings and licensing requirements for care providers. Now, it only refers parents back to the state’s Child and Family Services general information Web page.

“I get a little upset with the administration and policymakers for losing sight that if you don’t invest in foundational supports, bad things start to happen,” Walker said.

ADDING TO PARENTS’ BURDEN

Maine is understaffed in licensing and monitoring child care centers, which puts an additional burden on parents trying to research care options, Walker said.

With about a dozen inspectors, Maine has the sixth-worst ratio of inspectors to child care centers, according to Child Care Aware. Maine inspects centers once a year and in response to complaints. By comparison, some other states, such as Florida, Missouri, New York and Virginia, inspect centers four times a year, according to the group. While Maine does require in-state background checks for day care owners and employees, it does not require a check for crimes committed in other states.

No state has a perfect system, Walker said.

“Maine used to be better. Maine is now in the middle of the curve nationally. North Carolina is doing great things. New Jersey is pumping a lot of funding into early childhood education and universal pre-K,” Walker said.

North Carolina has more rigorous standards than most other states, such as comprehensive background checks for all staffers at home-based care providers and day care centers. The state also has a clear five-star ranking system and only centers that score a 3 or higher can accept federal subsidies to fund their business, Child Care Aware said.

Parents have a right to know the education background of the child care center’s director and the years of experience and training of the staff, Howard said.

“Ask a lot of questions. If the response is ‘I don’t know’ or ‘It doesn’t matter,’ take that as a red flag,” Howard said. “Are you welcome as a parent to come in at any time? There should be an open-door policy. You should be welcome to go with your child and sit and watch and observe. They should understand and honor the parents’ role with the child and the important decision they are making in choosing care.”

Michelle Smith called more than 70 care providers and languished on more than 10 waiting lists before finding a home-based day care in South Portland.

“It’s one of the most stressful things of parenting,” said Smith, who visited five home-care providers before finding the right one. “It’s really a gut feeling. Every one has different philosophies and you have to find the one that’s right for you.”

Smith is an advocate of home-based care because she feels her daughter gets more attention and benefits from being with children of different ages. Child-care centers typically separate children by age. She also enjoys the attention and care the day care provider gives to the parents, by texting daily photos of the children and an update on their daily activities.

“It seems there’s a shortage of day care options in Greater Portland,” Smith said. “I feel like it was a lot of work to get a slot in a quality place.”

Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

jhall@pressherald.com

@JessicaHallPPH