AUGUSTA — Two former employees of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services will likely detail shortcomings in the state’s day care inspection program to a government oversight agency, lawmakers said Monday.
The two former day care inspectors will explain the problems to the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, if the office is assigned by a legislative committee to review DHHS procedures.
DHHS officials said Monday that they were not aware of a potential review, which would follow last month’s closing of the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in Lyman. Inspectors found evidence of abuse there, including children being force-fed milk and having soap put in their mouths, and a child being “slammed” to the floor.
In August, a DHHS licensing report concluded that the day care center was unsafe for children, but the center was allowed to stay open under a conditional license, which is similar to being on probation.
The owners, Cheryl and Daniel Dubois, denied the accusations, likening them to a “witch hunt.” But they closed their day care center in January after the accusations were publicized and parents started withdrawing their children.
Critics have said the center should not have been permitted to stay open with such severe, substantiated violations.
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, a member of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, said the two former DHHS employees will explain the department’s inner workings and talk about flaws in the system that could show that the case in Lyman was a symptom of major problems, not an isolated case.
Craven is working with Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, to press for changes to the system to ensure that a similar situation doesn’t happen again.
The Government Oversight Committee will meet Friday, and could decide then whether to have the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability take up the case.
The two former employees are not being named while the case is pending, the lawmakers said.
Craven said the way the state licenses and inspects day cares is important because children should not be jeopardized. “People should have confidence, when they drop their children off at a day care, that their children are safe,” she said.
The state licenses more than 2,000 day care centers and in-home day cares. The number of inspectors it employs per day care is among the lowest in the nation, according to Child Care Aware of America, a Washington-based advocacy group that has done state-by-state research on the issue.
Farnsworth said the state must take a close look at hiring more inspectors and overhauling the way it does inspections.
“We have a lot of people who depend on these services, and the effectiveness of these inspections,” he said.
Beth Ashcroft, director of the government accountability office, confirmed that the case could come before her agency. She said that if her office does a review, it will submit a report to the Government Oversight Committee.
People interviewed for the report may or may not be asked to testify before the committee, Ashcroft said.
DHHS spokesman John Martins said Monday that the department’s inspection program is under evaluation but no decisions about staffing levels have been made.
DHHS officials have indicated that the department will start putting inspection reports online to get more information to parents, although that may not happen for up to a year.
Sara Bachelder of Biddeford, who took her children out of the Lyman day care center in 2012 and has since become an advocate for change, said she was “excited” to hear that an agency outside the DHHS may examine the state’s inspection program.
Bachelder said she has been trying to get information from the DHHS about the case in Lyman, but it has been difficult.
“I think having an objective perspective in doing the investigation is very important,” she said. “Transparency is also a key element that’s been missing up to this point.”
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: