Lawsuits filed by three families whose children attended the Sunshine Childcare & Preschool in Lyman reveal new details of alleged abuse, including a claim that a co-owner called one child “fat and disgusting” and forced her to run without resting.

Three separate civil complaints accuse Cheryl and Daniel Dubois, the owners of the now-closed child care center, of assault and battery, negligence and intentionally causing emotional distress for children, among other things.

Brett and Hannah Williams of Sanford, Sara Bachelder of North Waterboro and Christopher and Danielle Pouliot of Kennebunk are seeking undetermined punitive damages from the Duboises and the business. They filed their lawsuits late last month in York County Superior Court.

Earlier this year, similar allegations against the Sunshine Childcare & Preschool and its owners sparked criticism of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ response to reports of problems in child care centers. After months of scrutiny, the DHHS made changes including an increase in its investigatory staff.

Brian Champion, the Kennebunk-based attorney representing the three families in their lawsuits, said, “All of (the allegations) are based on fact not only supported by the DHHS investigation but also on our investigations and also eyewitness accounts.”

Daniel and Cheryl Dubois had yet to file a response to the lawsuit and could not be reached for comment Tuesday. In January, they denied such accusations, and said they were the subject of a “witch hunt.”

The DHHS determined that Cheryl Dubois had been “abusive, humiliating and intimidating” to children, but allowed the business to continue operating on a conditional license.

The lawsuits include several new allegations and add details to previous reports of abusive or questionable behavior by the staff at the child care center in Lyman, which closed in January after word spread about an investigation.

The lawsuit filed by Bachelder claims that Cheryl Dubois called one of her children, referred to only as RC, “fat and disgusting,” treated her differently from other children at meal times and told other employees “to order RC to run without rest” on the playground, even berating one employee for allowing the girl to pause because she was having difficulty breathing.

“I told you to keep her running. … I don’t care if you have to tape a candy bar to your (butt) to keep that child moving,” Cheryl Dubois told the employee, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuits claim that Cheryl Dubois reminded employees “that she knew how to control people because of her experience working in state prisons.”

In another lawsuit, the Pouliots claim that, based on reports from former employees, their son was force-fed milk by Cheryl Dubois or other employees who “would tilt KP’s head back, plug his nose and pour milk into his mouth.”

The lawsuit also repeats an earlier allegation that Cheryl Dubois pulled a chair out from under KP, causing his chin to hit the table, and that the boy’s grandmother saw a staff member “slam a child to the ground and drag him across the floor when he did not pay attention to her.”

The Williams’ lawsuit adds details to previous allegations that Cheryl Dubois wrapped their crying son in a blanket so tightly that the child screamed louder than an employee had ever heard.

“The employee went to check on GW,” the lawsuit says. “After a short time GW was visibly distressed and his eyes were red and bloodshot. GW’s eyes were not red before Cheryl took him from the employee. The employee stopped working at SunShine shortly after the incident with GW and made a report to DHHS.”

REFORMS DELAYED FOR MORE THAN A YEAR

The DHHS took no action in the Lyman case for more than a year, even after inspectors determined that abuse had occurred.

When the state finally acted, in August of 2013, it granted the business a conditional license, allowing it to operate on the equivalent of a probation. The center closed on its own in January after the allegations surfaced in the media and parents began pulling their children from the program.

Reports of abuse at the Sunshine Childcare & Preschool and subsequent media attention on Maine’s child care licensing system ultimately spurred action by the state.

Two former licensing workers told the Portland Press Herald in February that the work culture in the division was hostile, and that managers sat on abuse reports for months or years without making decisions.

DHHS licensing officials admitted that the state fell short and looked into ways to correct shortcomings in the system. The Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability is reviewing claims by the two former licensing workers, Nicole White and Charley LaFlamme, to determine what led to the problems and whether children are being adequately protected.

In March, Kenneth Albert, the licensing division’s director, announced a series of reforms including hiring more inspectors and changing the way that licensing decisions are made. Instead of having one manager handle all decisions, which created bottlenecks, a panel would review cases and make recommendations.

The panel meets weekly, and backlogs of cases are handled in a timely manner, state officials have said.

Before the reforms, Maine had one of the worst ratios of inspectors to child care centers in the country, according to Child Care Aware of America, leaving inspectors without enough time for thorough inspections, former workers said. Caseloads for inspectors will drop from 180 each to about 80.

CONCERNS ABOUT STATE ACCOUNTABILITY

A state lawmaker said he still believes families need a stronger legal mechanism to hold the state accountable.

Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, a co-chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said, “I do believe there should still be a screening process so we don’t have frivolous lawsuits, but there should be some relief, some compensation for malfeasance by the state.”

Farnsworth said attorneys for the families who sued approached him a few months ago to inquire about suing the DHHS in addition to the child care center and its owners. He said he told them that a lawsuit against the state would not have a good chance in court because, in most cases, people need to have the Legislature pass a law allowing them to sue the state.

Champion, the attorney for the three families, said the families are now suing only the Duboises and their facility. He would not say whether they might take legal action against the DHHS.

Farnsworth said he believes the law ends up protecting state employees who do wrong, and the state should pass laws giving those who are harmed by the state more access to the courts.

Even if lawmakers don’t allow people to sue the state more easily, he said, the state should set up a compensation fund for people who suffer from actions by the state. A panel could decide whether to award funds.

Bill Hager, public policy director for the Alliance for Children’s Care, a trade group representing child care centers, said that protecting the state from lawsuits is designed to ensure that workers don’t worry about legal repercussions when they make difficult family decisions, such as removing children from dangerous homes.

“You don’t want child protective workers to be overly cautious,” he said.

But Hager said the laws are not intended to protect state employees who don’t take appropriate action, so perhaps a middle ground could be carved out.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: [email protected]

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: [email protected]