AUGUSTA — The Maine House of Representatives voted Thursday to allow parents whose children attended a day care center in York County to sue the state for not doing enough to protect the children from abuse.
The House voted 80-62, mostly along party lines, to waive immunity from litigation for the Department of Health and Human Services. The bill now goes to the Senate, but even if it passes there, it faces a likely veto from Gov. Paul LePage. His office did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.
Five separate complaints were filed against DHHS in York County Superior Court last August by parents of children who attended Sunshine Child Care and Preschool in Lyman, which is now closed.
Those cases have been on hold, pending legislative approval of a waiver. The state has broad immunity from lawsuits under the Maine Tort Claims Act, but plaintiffs can seek permission from the Legislature to have that immunity waived in specific cases.
The parents seeking permission to sue the state are Sara Bachelder, Danielle and Christopher Pouliot, Hannah and Brett Williams, Tonya Later and Albert Sico III, and Michelle Tapley.
Those parents already sued the day care center’s former owners, Cheryl and Daniel Dubois, in May 2014. That case was recently settled, and the terms are confidential. Now the families want to pursue legal action against the state.
“Families trust that when a care provider meets state licensing standards that the daycare is a safe place for their kids,” said Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, the bill’s lead sponsor. “If a facility fails to meet the standards, there’s an assumption that the state will intervene. That did not happen here.”
Prior to Thursday’s vote, House Republicans, including Rep. Deborah Sanderson of Chelsea, said the bill is not needed because DHHS already has accepted responsibility and taken steps to improve the way day care centers are licensed and monitored.
An investigation by the Portland Press Herald in 2014 found that Sunshine Child Care was listed as a state-approved facility on a website maintained by DHHS even after the abuse allegations had been reported to the agency. The investigation unearthed numerous errors on the website, and former inspectors for the agency described a history of lax oversight.
The disclosures prompted an inquiry by the Legislature, which led DHHS to hire additional staff in its licensing unit, revise its policies, retool the day care website and replace the manager who oversaw day care regulation.
The abuse at Sunshine included force feeding of some children, tight swaddling of infants and verbal and physical abuse. Bachelder and a former worker complained to the state in 2011, but the day care licensing division at DHHS took no action against Sunshine for more than a year, despite concluding in 2012 that abuse of children had occurred, according to state records.
Bachelder, whose two children attended the day care, said she interviewed many parents and former workers, took notes and passed along all the information to DHHS.
“I said, ‘Here. I did a gift-wrapped investigation for you,’ ” she told the Press Herald in 2014, but nothing was done.
When the state did finally act, it granted Sunshine a conditional license until it corrected a number of deficiencies, but parents were not notified.
According to information provided by the House Democratic office, there have been 29 waivers of immunity approved by the Legislature since 1977.