ALFRED — Several parents who sent their children to the now-defunct Sunshine Child Care and Preschool in Lyman have filed a civil complaint against Maine Department of Health and Human Services and several of its bureaus, alleging the agency was negligent in how it handled reports of abuse, licensing violations and other complaints against the daycare and its owners, Cheryl and Dan Dubois.

The civil complaint, filed at York County Superior Court Aug. 12, alleges the department received reports of abuse and mistreatment of children from employees as early as 2003, in connection with a report that the owner had put pepper and soap on a child’s tongue as a form of punishment.

The civil complaint alleges DHHS breached its duty of care “by allowing the owners of Sunshine Childcare to have a license despite their history with Child Protective Services, allowing (the daycare) to operate without consequence despite complaints and a his- tory of abusive treatment, failing to ensure a safe and healthy environment for the children and failure to notify parents of the complaints of neglect and abuse, investigations and licensing action.” As well, the complaint goes on to allege DHHS breached its duty by failing to take licensing action after finding the daycare was “abusive, humiliating and intimidating to children,” and was a “toxic and unsafe environment for children,” according to the department’s own reports.

The complaint alleges the harm was caused by DHHS, its Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services, the Child Care Licensing Unit, and the Office of Child and Family Services.

It alleges that negligence, failure to inform parents and inaction by employees of DHHS and the bureaus created an unreasonable risk of bodily harm to the children.

It alleges the harm was foreseeable because DHHS had been aware of specific acts of abuse, negligence and falsification of information on licensing applications as early as 2003 and allowed the daycare to continue operation without sanction and notification to parents.

It also alleges the conduct of DHHS and its bureaus was “so extreme and outrageous as to exceed all possible bounds of decency and must be regard as atrocious and utterly intolerable.”

The suit claims the upper level management at DHHS created a culture of fear and intimidation that prevented lower level employees from effectively doing their job, and that workers felt that their caseloads prevented them from doing an effective job.

The daycare closed voluntarily in January of 2014, after numerous incidents of abuse came to light in findings issued following a July, 2013 investigation by DHHS. That investigation found that Cheryl Dubois pulled a chair out from under a child and he fell, hitting his chin on a table; picked up a child by the biceps; put soap in children’s mouths; and forcefed them milk. It found an employee picked up a child by the arm and moved him to another part of the room, among other listed incidents. The report issued by DHHS stated Dubois yelled and swore at children, and claimed a parent saw an employee forcibly restrain a child. Additionally, the report stated that Cheryl Dubois swaddled an infant so tightly, “it caused the child to cry forcibly and for the child’s eyes to become bloodshot.” The daycare was issued a conditional license.

There had been prior complaints and prior investigations by DHHS. One parent and a former employee filed a complaint against the facility in May 2012. An investigation ensued, and DHHS issued a “Letter of Concern” to Cheryl Dubois on Oct. 26, 2012, but no licensing action was taken at that time.

The civil complaint against DHHS alleges parents were first made aware of the October, 2012 letter outlining the department’s concerns about the daycare in January, 2014. A notice that accompanied the daycare’s 2013 conditional license contained 52 violations, but parents were not aware of it.

The Division of Licensing and Regulation changed its policies in January, 2014 and said such information, once held as confidential, would be shared with parents.

The civil complaints were filed by five families, including Brett and Hannah Williams, Albert Sico and Tonya Later, Sarah Bachelder, Michelle Tapley and Danielle and Christopher Pouliot. All are represented by attorney Brian Champion.

The plaintiffs have filed a motion asking that proceedings in the case be stayed until L.D. 805 passes through the Legislature, because of a requirement that they seek legislative permission to sue. L.D. 805 is sponsored by Rep. Richard Farnsworth and co-sponsored by Sen. David Dutremble and Rep. Barry Hobbins. The bill was carried over until the next session and is expected to be acted upon in January or February. The motion, which had not been signed by a judge Tuesday afternoon, asks proceedings be stayed until 30 days after the bill passes through the Legislature.

DHHS spokesman David Sorensen said the department had no comment.

Three families – Brett and Hannah Williams, Danielle and Christopher Pouliot and Sarah Bachelder filed a civil suit against Sunshine Child Care and Preschool LLC and Cheryl and Daniel Dubois in May 2014, citing several counts of negligence, assault and battery.

No criminal charges have been filed.

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or [email protected]

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