February 2

Quality child care tough to find everywhere; more challenging in Maine

Waiting lists, lack of online information and overloaded inspectors complicate parents' search.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Sara Bachelder of Biddeford did everything she could think of to ensure her children were in good hands at Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in Lyman.

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Andrew McCullough of Portland brings his 9-month-old daughter, Aurea, to First Step Educational Daycare in South Freeport recently. Advocates say Maine has more than 55,000 children under age 6 who potentially require child care, at least part time.

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Andrew McCullough of Portland says goodbye to his daughter Aurea as he drops her off with Jacky Swindler, director and owner of First Step Educational Daycare in South Freeport. “There’s nothing more important than finding a safe place for your child,” said McCullough’s wife, Katie Coppens, who started looking for child care for her daughter while she was still pregnant.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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She stopped by, unannounced, for random visits and inspections. She volunteered in the day care to get to know the staff and watch them interact with her children. She joined the parents’ committee. She also called the state of Maine’s licensing department to see if there were any complaints lodged against the day care.

“I did everything you’re supposed to do. I don’t know what else I could have done,” Bachelder said. “Everything seemed fine. It looked so good at Sunshine. It’s like you can’t trust anyone.”

For working parents, few things are more important than finding quality child care. But parents in Maine face a host of challenges in reaching that goal, from a state database that’s out of date and difficult to search, to overloaded inspectors who have caseloads that are three times the recommended number, to a lack of rigorous background checks on day care workers, national specialists said.

Those problems crystallized last month at Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in Lyman, where reports surfaced of serious problems that included a co-owner slamming a child to the ground. Sunshine had been operating since Aug. 28 under a conditional license for a host of violations detailed in a nine-page report filed by inspectors from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The license meant it had one year to fix significant problems.

The owners denied the allegations of abuse, but Sunshine closed on its own in early January – four months after the state sanctioned it – after several parents pulled their children out of the center.

The state has 721 child care centers, and another 1,259 home-based child care options, according to Child Care Aware of America, a nonprofit advocacy group. There are about 55,863 children under the age of 6 in the state who potentially need child care, at least part time, Child Care Aware said.

Average day care fees depend on the age of the child, with infants costing the most since they require a higher ratio of staff to children than older kids. In 2013, child care for infants at a center cost as much as $9,360 a year in Maine, which is roughly the U.S. average, where the price ranges from $4,850 to $16,450 a year. Full-time care for children in a home-based child care setting is less, totaling about $6,760 for infants. That compares to the national range of $3,950 to $11,050 annually, according to Child Care Aware.

‘I FEEL LIKE I'M TRAUMATIZED’

The only red flag to potential problems at Sunshine that caught Bachelder’s attention was the high rate of staff turnover, but the owner always had a good explanation of why each employee was moving on to a new job, she said.

It wasn’t until a staffer called her at home that Bachelder heard about abuse of children at Sunshine in May 2012. She immediately pulled her children out and sent them to the YMCA of Southern Maine in Biddeford, where she had once worked and knew the staff.

“I feel like I’m traumatized. I called our new child care center about 15 times to make sure everything was going smoothly,” Bachelder said. “I was still a wreck.”

Sunshine co-owner Daniel Dubois has denied the charges to the Press Herald, saying parents were “making this place sound like the house of horrors, but that’s not true.” Dubois, who described the accusations as a “witch hunt,” couldn’t be reached for comment.

While every family situation is different, parents’ need to find a safe, caring place for their children every day is universal.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Child care

Have you had difficulty finding day care for your children?

Yes

No

View Results