January 28

DHHS stumbles on Lyman day care owner’s abuse

One arm of the agency says yes, then another says no, a conflict that could put kids at risk and suggests a communications gap.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Less than three months after one arm of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services reported that Cheryl Dubois had been “abusive, humiliating and intimidating” to children at her day care center in Lyman – including incidents that left children bruised – another office in the DHHS overturned a finding that she had been physically abusive.

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DHHS officials did not respond specifically Wednesday to questions about their decision that the risk to children was 'not severe enough' to share information about Sunshine Child Care & Preschool. That decision meant that findings of abuse would not be reported to potential employers of Cheryl Dubois, including other day care centers, or to licensing agencies, including the DHHS office that licensed her Sunshine Child Care & Preschool.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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That decision by the Office of Child and Family Services meant that the finding of abuse would not be reported to potential employers of Dubois, including other day care centers, or to licensing agencies, including the DHHS office that licensed her Sunshine Child Care & Preschool.

“We have determined that the risk (to children) is not severe enough” to share that information, said the letter sent to Dubois in November to inform her of the decision.

DHHS officials did not respond specifically Wednesday to questions about the decision, whether different offices within the department share information on investigations, and how the finding might have affected the handling of the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool’s license.

Instead, the department emailed a statement late Wednesday afternoon that said it had changed some policies and “implemented a new practice” to share information with parents of children in day care centers where abuse or neglect has occurred.

The statement, provided by Kenneth Albert, director of the DHHS’s Office of Licensing and Regulatory Services, gave no details on what those policy changes are or how the information will be shared.

In August, the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool was given a conditional license based on an investigation by Albert’s office, meaning it could operate for a year as long as it corrected a long list of violations.

In November, the Office of Child and Family Services sent its letter to Dubois.

It said an initial finding alleging that she had abused a child was “indicated,” meaning it was of low to moderate severity. It’s not clear from the letter whether the alleged abuse occurred at the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool or whether it involved a child who was in its care.

The DHHS treats cases of “indicated” abuse as relatively low-level events and will conduct “paper appeals” of the allegations, said Jack Comart, a lawyer with Maine Equal Justice Partners who has worked on matters involving the DHHS. That means an accused person can appeal, as Dubois did, by filing a written response and witness statements, and no hearing is held.

“You basically submit your side of the story,” Comart said.

Daniel Dubois, co-owner of the day care center, said he thought that the letter cleared the center, as well as his wife, of wrongdoing so they skipped a hearing in December on their appeal of the conditional license.

The couple closed their day care center early this month, after word of the investigation and conditional license spread among parents, who began withdrawing their children.

Daniel Dubois never posted the notice of a conditional license, as he was required to do, and the DHHS apparently never checked to make sure he had.

On Wednesday, DHHS spokesman John Martins did not respond to questions about the Office of Child and Family Services’ decision to overturn the finding against Cheryl Dubois, and how the department squared that decision with the report by the Office of Licensing and Regulatory Services.

Martins said the DHHS is working to provide more information to parents on the safety of day care centers, and has scheduled a conference call for Thursday afternoon to answer questions on its practices.

In the meantime, the department’s online guide to help parents find child care includes inaccurate information, and lists day care centers that are operating under conditional licenses without indicating that there are any problems at those centers.

Brett and Hannah Williams of Sanford say up-to-date information would have helped them after their infant son was swaddled so tightly by Cheryl Dubois that his eyes became bloodshot, according to the licensing office’s investigation of her day care center.

The incident apparently occurred at least three years ago. The couple withdrew their son in January 2011, after noticing staff members acting tense and nervous. They say they were not told what happened to their son until this month, when a former employee of the day care center contacted them after news reports about the center appeared.

“We had no idea. We were never told by the state,” said Hannah Williams. “Parents should be told immediately if there’s a DHHS investigation involving their child.”

“The state let us down,” said Brett Williams.

The DHHS did not respond to questions why the Williamses were never told about the incident or that it was part of the department’s investigation of the day care center.

That investigation said Cheryl Dubois had been “abusive, humiliating and intimidating” and created “a toxic and unsafe environment” for children and employees.

It said Dubois had lifted a child by his or her biceps, “slamming” the child on the floor; pulled chairs out from under children, causing bruises and cuts; forced children to put soap in their mouths; and force-fed milk to children who refused to drink.

The report also said Dubois had lied on her license applications by saying she had never had any involvement with the Office of Child and Family Services.

The statement from Albert said the Office of Licensing and Regulatory Services “regularly” turns down applications for licenses if misinformation is provided. But the department did not say why the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool’s license was approved after investigators found that Dubois had lied in her applications.

“We rely on the integrity of those who apply for child care licenses,” Albert’s statement said. “Several variables can complicate the ability to confirm key information,” it added, without saying what those variables are. 

Staff Writer Joe Lawlor contributed to this report.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

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