January 25

Maine day care providers open to changes, supportive of state’s efforts

DHHS is considering changes after a day care in Lyman got a license even after a co-owner was found to be abusive to children in her care.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Child care providers said Friday they generally support improvements to state licensing and oversight of day care centers while pointing out that regulations are only as good as the enforcement.

Lori Moses, executive director of the Catherine Morrill Day Nursery in Portland, said she thinks that licensing workers are doing the best they can but are overworked.

And the state’s licensing policies are adequate, she said. “A lot of it is just following through on the monitoring.”

The division of the Department of Health and Human Services that licenses day care centers is considering improvements in response to revelations this month that a day care in Lyman operated on a conditional license even after an investigation showed that a co-owner was abusive to children in her care, the division’s director said this week.

Investigators reported that Cheryl Dubois slammed a child to the floor, forced children to put soap in their mouths, and pulled a chair out from under a child who suffered a bruise and a cut, among other incidents. The Sunshine Child Care & Preschool closed in early January as parents withdrew their children.

Kenneth Albert, director of the DHHS’s Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services, said Thursday that officials are considering changes including: improving communication to parents when an investigation is initiated, posting investigative reports online and implementing a system to fingerprint day care center operators and employees.

Day care providers in southern Maine said Friday that they don’t oppose new regulations for facilities that serve children, but enforcing the current regulations is just as important.

“I don’t think DHHS is doing a bad job; I just think they are taxed,” said Jessica Steele, executive director of The Children’s Center, a day care facility on Stevens Avenue in Portland.

Steve Brier, executive director of The Little Dolphin School, which has locations in Westbrook and Scarborough, said he thinks the case in Lyman is likely a “bad apple situation,” but reflects an agency’s struggle to meet its demands.

“It’s not uncommon for inspectors to be backed up for many months,” he said.

Several day care providers who spoke Friday said even if the state changed nothing about its procedures, better communication is paramount.

“There has to be some way for families to know if their facility is being investigated,” Steele said. “That’s an area where we should be really transparent.”

Moses, at the Catherine Morrill Day Nursery, agreed. She said parents often trust their day care providers to share information, but that doesn’t always happen.

Albert said Thursday that the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services already has initiated a policy to inform parents about investigations involving their children. That change happened in October, but Albert said he doesn’t think any parents have been informed yet about investigations.

Albert also suggested fingerprinting day care operators and employees as a way to check their backgrounds. He said fingerprinting would have addressed Dubois’ previous involvement with state child protective service workers.

But Moses said that mandating fingerprinting could be a knee-jerk reaction because every day care center she knows of already does background checks.

Brier said that all employees of The Little Dolphin School go through two separate background checks, and that every lead teacher must have a four-year degree in education.

A broader discussion, which could prove more political, is whether to require more rigorous standards for day care centers.

Moses said licensing requirements are really just a bare minimum.

Steele said some people operate day care centers as businesses while others do it out of passion, but all should be held to the same standards of quality.

Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said he was encouraged by what he heard from Albert.

“They seem to be taking aggressive steps to try to address that issue, but they need to be more transparent about the other (facilities) operating on a conditional license.” Farnsworth said.

The Sunshine Child Care & Preschool was one of 21 day care centers in Maine that were put on conditional licenses in 2013, out of about 850 that the DHHS oversees.

Farnsworth said he expects to submit emergency legislation to address some of the deficiencies that have come to light, but he needs to “do more homework first” about what regulations are on the books.

“DHHS is open to correcting the situation and our job is to help make that happen,” he said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:or

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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