The state’s watchdog agency is recommending the Department of Health and Human Services clarify when parents should be notified about investigations into potential abuse and neglect of children at a day care facility.
But several day care operators raised concerns Friday that notifying all parents about unsubstantiated complaints – especially those made with malicious intent – could cause needless alarm and drive some childcare facilities out of business.
The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, began reviewing the policies and practices of DHHS’ Children’s Licensing and Investigation Services after a high-profile case of suspected child abuse and neglect at a daycare facility in Lyman in 2014. DHHS investigators found the co-owner of Sunshine Child Care & Preschool had been “abusive, humiliating and intimidating” to children. But parents of children said they were unaware of the alleged abuse, and the now-closed facility was listed as providing high-quality care on a state-run website four months after being sanctioned by DHHS.
The incident led to internal changes at DHHS and passage of a weakened bill in 2015 authorizing – but not requiring – the department to notify parents of investigations.
The OPEGA report found that DHHS’ current internal policies are actually more stringent than the state law. The department notifies parents of children who are potential victims at the onset and conclusion of investigations. But OPEGA pointed out that while Maine law allows for the notification of parents of children who were not victimized, the law “does not provide specific guidance on when notifications, other than those to parents of alleged victims, should occur.”
OPEGA’s report recommended clarifying those processes while noting the discrepancy between state law and DHHS policy.
“This could potentially result in a scenario in which parental notifications are not required at all if the requirement in agency policy were to change,” the report stated.
Beth Ashcroft, OPEGA’s staff director, told members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee in late-March that the department’s “lack of clear expectations” on notifications could end up impacting when – or if – parents of alleged victims and non-victims are notified.
“They do have the ability and authority to notify all parents, and they do that on a case-by-case basis, depending on whether they think what they’ve discovered … looks like a systemic problem,” Ashcroft said.
DHHS REVISING PROCEDURES
DHHS did not have a representative at the Government Oversight Committee’s follow-up meeting on the OPEGA report on Friday. But in written responses, the department said staff are “revising Standard Operating Procedures to address minor inconsistencies that currently exist with related statute.”
There are roughly 2,000 licensed or certified child care providers in Maine, ranging from nursery schools to small home-based operations with just a handful of children. DHHS’ Children’s Licensing and Investigation Services received 526 reports of either abuse/neglect or license violations during the period OPEGA examined, from January 2015 through May 2016. The vast majority of those reports – 82 percent – involved license violations rather than abuse.
It was unclear Friday how many of those cases were dismissed and how many resulted in sanctions.
While OPEGA steered clear of recommending specific changes to the notification process, there is an ongoing debate in daycare circles as well as among some at the State House about whether all parents should be informed about an investigation at a facility.
Melanie Collins, a child care provider from Falmouth, said DHHS should wait until complaints have been substantiated before sending letters to all parents. Like all businesses, child care facilities can be targeted by false or inaccurate complaints, but Collins said the ramifications from a false report can be particularly harsh for a daycare center if parents pull their children before an investigation even begins.
“As child care business owners, we accept that an investigation must be made for every complaint even when it is very obvious that a complaint is made with the intention of retaliation or bullying,” Collins said. “You must also realize that there are no repercussions for people who use complaints to harass, bully or cause financial harm to innocent people who care for children.”
Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, a Sanford Democrat who had constituents with children at the Lyman day care, pressed the speakers at what point parents should be notified.
“Because kids don’t talk,” Mastraccio said. “It’s not like they can come home and say, ‘Oh, guess what happened today?’ They are the innocent victims here.”
Collins and others acknowledged the challenge of deciding when to send out broader notifications. But they said Maine policymakers must strike a balance to protect children while avoiding ruining innocent businesses targeted by, say, estranged ex-spouses, neighbors who don’t want to live next to a daycare or former clients angry about a price hike.
June Holman, a Portland resident who operates a small-scale child care facility, said she has been targeted by retaliatory complaints during her lengthy career. Holman said she believes every complaint must be investigated, but said sending letters home to parents about unsubstantiated complaints will harm innocent business owners. As a mother and grandmother, Holman acknowledged that even she would advise her daughter to pull out of a daycare facility if she received a letter advising her of an investigation.
“When a letter from DHHS comes that says we are investigating for abuse, people take that seriously,” Holman said. “You assume at that point that something serious has caused this, not just any old complaint.
“But unfortunately, what really happens is any old complaint is investigated. And I agree with that. But if you allow the letters to go out, my business will get ruined if everybody pulls children.”
Since the Lyman incident, DHHS also has revamped the state-run website, www.childcarechoices.me, that allows visitors to look up the licensing status and sanctions against a facility. However, several of the Government Oversight Committee members said the site is not overly user-friendly, while others have questioned the usefulness of information posted on the site.
OPEGA found there were no standards for posting that information on the website and that average times among the sample investigations ranged widely. Documents showing license violations as well as the facility’s corrective plan were posted, on average, within 29 days of DHHS first making contact with the day care about the complaint. But it took, on average, 238 days to post that information on the website for the three child abuse/neglect cases that involved additional sanctions against the facility because of the lengthy appeal process.
DHHS pledged to address the report’s concerns.
“The department concurs with the recommendation to establish a time frame for posting licensing actions to the Child Care Choices website,” DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew wrote to Ashcroft. “Children’s Licensing program manager will establish an implement this change immediately.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: