Parents for Safe Child Care

Who's minding day care?

Lax oversight in King County can expose kids to harm

Monday, June 24, 2002


A passing motorist spots 3-year-old Matthew standing alone near a busy Renton thoroughfare -- more than four blocks from his day care. When police return the boy, the day care provider is gone, having left her sister to watch over 13 kids.

Another 3-year-old is so disliked by his teacher at a Kent child-care center that she calls him "a (expletive) devil child." When other kids pummel the boy with blocks, slicing his ear, neck, chin and mouth, she does nothing to stop it.

A mother comes to pick up her 13-month-old daughter at a Bellevue day care, but the girl isn't in her classroom . After a frantic search, the crying toddler is found at the top of a flight of stairs -- dangerously close to a balcony.

These nightmarish stories are not as rare as parents would hope.

In King County, more than 5,800 children in licensed day cares were exposed to potential harm between January 1999 and December 2001 -- enrolled in dangerous, abusive or badly run facilities, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has found. And state regulators allowed two-thirds of these providers -- including the three cited above -- to operate long after discovering serious health and safety problems.

"Our children are too vulnerable," said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who has pushed for stronger regulation. "We should not have any provider licensed by the state unless we've made absolutely certain, as best we can, that that provider is suitable and the children there will be safe."

Most of the county's day cares appear to meet or exceed the state's minimum requirements. Deaths or serious injuries of children while in licensed care remain rare. And the number of complaints investigated by the state dropped last year, a fact state officials attribute to training providers.

But when serious problems do emerge, the state Division of Child Care and Early Learning is admittedly slow to use the most powerful punitive tools at its disposal: yanking licenses, imposing fines or putting facilities on probation.

Stu Jacobson, founder of the non-profit Washington Parents for Safe Daycare, has long lobbied for stricter enforcement.

"What they're actually saying is it's OK for the business to get chance after chance, even though the victim is not going to be the state, ... it's going to be the child," Jacobson said. "It's nothing less than Russian roulette with our children."

One chain-owned day care, Childtime Learning Center in Kent, notched more than 50 violations in two years -- including repeatedly squeezing too many kids into classrooms -- before state licensors threatened the center with closure.

During the three-year period examined by the P-I, regulators took 89 serious licensing actions against King County in-home day cares and centers, including writing up formal compliance agreements, imposing fines, placing facilities on probation and revoking licenses. More than half the time, the center or home was cited for failing to adequately supervise children or maintain the required ratio of adults to children. In about 40 percent of the cases, the day care was deemed unsafe, according to licensing records.

Young children have been left behind in shopping malls and forgotten inside cars. Others were taped to their chairs, gagged, beaten or bitten by teachers. A few were sexually abused, sometimes by the husbands, friends or assistants of their caregivers, the state records show.

One case recently grabbed headlines: Darryl Betties, a former teacher at a Seattle church-run center, is facing criminal charges for sexually assaulting two young boys. Before his arrest, Betties worked as a substitute at other day cares.

In some of the most egregious cases, teachers and administrators have been fired. In May 2000, Cindy Palmer, the teacher involved in the "devil child" incident, was fired by administrators at the Early Childhood Academy. Later, state Child Protective Services investigators determined her actions amounted to "physical neglect" of a child. The director of the Kent center, which was not held responsible, said it was obvious within days Palmer was not going to work out. Attempts to locate Palmer were unsuccessful.

The state documented 23 cases of abuse and neglect in King County between 1999 and 2001. Nineteen licensors -- responsible for monitoring and mentoring providers -- are charged with ensuring the health and safety of more than 50,000 children enrolled in King County's 650 centers and 1,540 in-home day cares.

For enforcement efforts to be taken seriously, experts say inspections in Washington would have to be doubled or tripled. State officials concede the Division of Child Care and Early Learning is seriously understaffed and isn't making the number of inspections that it should.

"If there's anything we can do to get the net number of licensors in the field to increase, we'll do it," said Rachael Langen, who heads the state agency.

The shortfalls come at a time when pressure for child-care slots -- fueled by welfare reform and the swelling ranks of working women -- is great. Because of this, the state is reluctant to close down a problem day care.

Failing to have enough trained teachers and aides to adequately oversee groups of children is the most rampant child-care problem in the county's troubled facilities, the P-I found.

State rules dictate the maximum number of children each adult can supervise. For children from birth through 11 months old, there must be at least one adult for every four children in a center. The ratio increases with age.

The primary reason for having low ratios is the health and safety of children, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children. If there's a fire, for example, teachers would need to be able to carry out infants. Research also shows that young children do best in small groups with a consistent caregiver.

Children in King County have been so poorly supervised that they have nearly drowned, been badly hurt by other children, gotten into bottles of bleach and prescription drugs and wandered away from their centers unnoticed, state records show.

In the case of the 13-month-old girl found at the top of the stairs, the director of Neighborhood Christian School in Bellevue, initially insisted to Isabella's mother that afternoon in 1999 that someone else must have picked up the girl.

Staff members later told investigators they hadn't been trained on how to keep track of children. The day care has since closed. The state investigator who checked up on the in home day care responsible for Matthew, the boy who wandered off last year, noted that on other occasions the provider had more children in her care than she was licensed for

"It appears she is unwilling or unable to have correct staffing ratios in her facility," the investigator's report noted.

The provider, Amy Love, had left her sister with 13 children while she shopped for birthday supplies, even though two adults were required to watch over a maximum of 12 kids.

Love told the P-I that Matthew's disappearance was a jolt, spurring her to make her business safer and better staffed. Rather than shut her down, regulators put her on probation. Matthew's mother, who pulled him out of the day care, couldn't believe Love is still in business today.

The state requires providers to inform parents of only the most serious actions, such as placing a facility on a probationary license -- and day cares haven't always met even that requirement. Day cares investigated for abuse, neglect or serious licensing violations are under no legal obligation to inform parents, even if the allegations are found to be true.

The vacuum of information disturbs parents whose children have been placed in harm's way.

Douglas Junkins' 5-year-old son, Derek, had to be dragged out of the deep end of a Seattle swimming pool in 1998 while on a poorly supervised field trip with his child-care center. The boy didn't know how to swim.

Junkins had no idea the center was being investigated for an accident that occurred four months earlier. His request for findings in the review of the near-drowning, investigated by Child Protective Services, yielded nothing. "If it's a state-licensed facility, parents have a right to know that they've been investigated or they're on a probationary license," Junkins said.

Day-care operators say they're struggling to survive in a low-margin business beset by poor wages and high turnover. And, many argue, their livelihoods are subject to vague regulations and the subjective interpretations of licensors.

In-home providers recently formed a group -- Advocates for Provider Rights and Education -- that aims to defend embattled members and push for more consistent enforcement statewide.

"There are many providers around the state that are dealing with licensors who have become, basically, police," said Linda Tyner, president of the Washington State Family Child Care Association. "It isn't helpful for the kids."

'Shades of everything'

Few King County day cares have faced the ultimate penalty of having their licenses yanked. Last year, out of more than 2,000 facilities, the state took that action only once.

A founded abuse or neglect incident is grounds for immediately shutting down a center. In such cases, however, the state sometimes grants waivers that allow violators to continue operating under probationary licenses.

"Maybe there was a momentary lapse on the part of a caretaker and a toddler got out of the house for a brief amount of time," said Mike Tornquist, policy administrator for the state child-care agency. "There are shades of everything."

Susan Hayward, who runs an in-home day care in Kent, left a child behind at a movie theater during an outing to see "Tarzan" at the Auburn Supermall. Theater employees found 4-year-old Anthony wandering the parking lot and called police.

CPS investigators noted that even though Hayward had briefly lost track of a child, she took appropriate steps. CPS rated her future risk at "zero."

Other waivers, though, have been granted to providers whose records weren't so clean.

Children's World Learning Center in Seattle's Northgate neighborhood continued to operate despite two substantiated neglect incidents.

In March 1998, a 3-year-old girl sustained a serious gash on her cheek at the chain-owned center when a heavy, broken table that had been propped up in a classroom fell on her during nap time.

A few months late, Derek Junkins nearly drowned when he entered the deep end of Helene Madison Pool on a field trip. Three Children's World employees were assigned to watch over 30 kids -- there should have been at least four -- and they didn't know which kids could swim.

Over the previous three years, the state had received dozens of complaints about the center.

The probationary license finally jolted the chain into fixing the problems. Colorado-based Children's World fired the Northgate director and hired a seasoned administrator. Swimming field trips are no longer allowed, and classrooms have been broken into smaller areas, allowing for greater supervision of children.

"Any time a company has a couple of instances like that, that close together ... you have to look at the staffing, you have to look at the training they received ... to see what you have to do to fix it," said Lisa Jacobs, a Children's World spokeswoman.

Other providers with founded abuse charges who continue to operate include Rosalind Wilson, who became so exasperated by a 3-year-old at her Seattle day care in December 2000, she bit him on the arm, leaving a 2-inch bruise. The boy's parents were sufficiently alarmed to take the child to the hospital. Licensors say Wilson was a 30-year provider who lost control once. Wilson said that since the incident, with a child who was "a terrible biter", she has screened potential daycare clients more carefully.

Centers rarely lose licenses

Big child-care centers almost always duck the ultimate penalty of license revocation. Of the nine licenses revoked in King County in 1999, 2000 and 2001, eight involved in-home day cares.

The sole large-scale center that lost its license was Noah's Ark, located in the Grace Apostolic Temple in Seattle's Rainier Valley. The 60-child center had recurring problems -- including children wandering in hallways unsupervised and a nearly complete lack of play and learning materials -- dating as far back as 1987.

Between August 1998 and June 2002, the center was investigated for 34 disturbing allegations.

A teacher who had been fired for hitting a child was rehired, licensors found. The center sent the wrong child home with foster parents and allowed as many as 16 toddlers to be cared for by a single teacher. During one licensing visit, one of the bathrooms reeked of urine, and water was running across the floor from a leaking toilet. Another time, children were running around and screaming in a classroom while the teacher breast-fed her own child, ignoring the ruckus. The center was also found to be overbilling for food and child-care subsidies reserved for low-income families, records show.

In March 2000, Noah's Ark was fined $500. By September, the license was revoked.

Church officials say they were victimized by anonymous, baseless complaints and an "out-of-control" licensor.

"It became apparent to me that they were stockpiling -- accumulating enough stuff, ... enough inappropriate conduct, that they could close the program," said Pastor Roland Hairston, who oversaw the center. "They sprung new things on us all of the time."

Washington's reluctance to revoke child-care licenses isn't unusual, experts say.

Inspection backlogs, insufficient staffing and the risk of legal battles are some of the key reasons for sluggish enforcement nationwide, said Suzanne Helburn, a retired economics professor at the University of Colorado-Denver and co-author of "America's Child Care Problem: The Way Out."

Langen said licensors are required to offer training and assistance to providers before taking more drastic action.

"What I keep coming back to is we're investing in the providers," she said. "I just think it's a much more personal approach than a bunch of regulations."

Reluctance to impose fines

Child-care experts say penalties short of revocation are crucial because providers know states don't want to put day cares out of business at a time when demand for child care is growing.

"I've often argued it's these intermediate penalties that really matter," said William Gormley, a Georgetown University professor who has written extensively on child-care issues.

But inspectors in Washington are placing child-care facilities on probation less frequently. That action was taken 12 times last year in King County, compared with 33 in 1999 and 21 in 2000.

In addition to waivers for abuse and neglect incidents, probationary licenses are granted to child-care centers with chronic problems that aren't corrected after months or even years of warnings.

The Legislature created the ability to levy fines in 1996, but they are rarely imposed. Over the last three years, regulators in King County fined 15 facilities a total of $184,650. Of those, six were reduced, rescinded or forgiven when day cares ceased to operate or finally came into compliance. The state is still trying to get two others to pay up.

Small Dimensions, a Redmond child care center, ducked a $47,250 fine in 2001 after finally reducing the number of babies in its infant room, which had been holding a dozen babies in violation of the state limit of eight.

Early Care Montessori in Renton racked up licensing violations over three years, ranging from failing to report a serious injury to the state, to allowing 15-year-olds to watch over children. The owner was fined $16,500, which was forgiven after the center was sold in May 2000.

Licensing officials say they use fines sparingly in part because they don't want to slam day cares that are struggling financially.

"You're taking supplies and toys from kids," said Patricia Eslava Vessey, regional manager for south and east King County for the state Division of Child Care and Early Learning.

Licensors in short supply

Part of the problem is there aren't enough licensors.

In King County, there's one for every 152 in-home day cares and every 85 centers. Their goal is to check on home day cares licensed for up to 12 children every 18 months; large centers once a year.

"That's disgusting," said Helburn, the Colorado expert. She recommends a minimum of two unannounced inspections per year. "What this means is that there's no real effective enforcement if places are not being visited."

One inspector can responsibly monitor no more than 75 child-care centers or large in-home day cares, although the optimal caseload wouldn't exceed 50, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

To get monitoring visits up to twice a year, state officials say they would need 50 additional licensors statewide. Langen requested 18 more inspectors last year, but in the midst of the state budget crunch, she got none.

Less frequent monitoring visits mean regulators rely heavily on phoned-in complaints, which places more onus on parents to monitor the day cares their children attend.King County licensors investigate about a thousand day-care complaints each year. Those employees have other responsibilities as well, including screening prospective child-care workers for histories of abuse or neglect.

A central state Department of Social and Human Services unit checks criminal histories through the Washington State Patrol and, if the applicant has lived in this state for less than three years, through the FBI.

A record of violence or child abuse and neglect bars a person from working at a licensed center. So does a list of other felonies, including drug and sex offenses, if the convictions aren't more than five years old.The state doesn't keep a central database of how many applicants are denied access to children each year, and day cares can start new employees before the check comes back. Only those who need FBI checks must be supervised before being cleared.

That means licensors don't know if a child predator is going from day care to day care in search of a job -- and vulnerable victims.

Police say that's what Betties tried. Betties quit his eight-year job at Seattle's Our Place Daycare last December and was able to substitute at several other day cares before he was arrested in March, authorities said. Betties, who has pleaded innocent to child molestation and child rape, is scheduled to stand trial July 16.

Delays in processing background checks have allowed people who should have been rejected to slip in the door at local day cares.

Joanne McLaughlin watched over infants at Sunnybrook Montessori in Issaquah for more than a month in 1999 before her background check came back. It showed that, three years earlier, McLaughlin had neglected children in her day care -- leaving them home alone.Before Sunnybrook Montessori found that out, a 10-month-old boy in McLaughlin's care fell face-first onto a linoleum floor after climbing onto a shelf, a common occurrence in her classroom. That day, McLaughlin didn't get medical help or call the parents for several hours, instead allowing the injured child to fall asleep for 1 1/2 hours and vomit repeatedly, records show.

The boy survived the incident, and McLaughlin was fired. Center director Cathy Williams said McLaughlin was supervised at the time, and background checks are coming back too slowly -- sometimes as long as eight months. The center was not held responsible.

Licensors such as Jennifer Savage, assigned to the Kent office, strive to strike a balance between enforcing rules and providing needed support.

On a typical visit, Savage will spend time in different classrooms, observing how teachers and aides interact with children. She'll check for physical requirements, a long list that ranges from making sure cleaning solutions are stored away from children to ensuring there are adequate toys.

She'll also go through staff and student files to check for required documentation and training certifications. She'll discuss past concerns and offer suggestions.

"We're faced with a lot of really tricky judgment calls on a regular basis," Savage said. "Being really forceful and aggressive doesn't always meet the needs of the children best."

Experts warn, though, that mentoring alone is not enough.

"Mentoring has to be coupled with vigilance and tough oversight," Gormley said.

'We need to do a better job'

Child-care spending in Washington nearly tripled between 1996 and 2001, when it reached $343 million.

The number of licensors, however, didn't grow. An infusion of federal money went largely to training providers and subsidizing care for low-income families.

Providers have resisted past attempts to add more regulations and requirements -- particularly for small in-home day cares.

"The people who are working with the kids know the very best what the boundaries are and what the challenges are," said Michelle Sokoloski, who edits a newsletter for providers, called Kidnections.

In recent years, the state Legislature gave child-care regulators the ability to impose fines and to place facilities on probationary licenses. Lawmakers also partially funded a toll-free number for parents to get information about specific day cares and to require training for providers.

Kohl-Welles, the Seattle state legislator, has unsuccessfully pushed to require day cares to post notices of licensing actions taken against them and carry liability insurance.

Langen heads a year-old division that also oversees subsidies, health surveyors and Head Start. The agency's goals include improving information available to parents on the Internet, streamlining background checks and being more consistent in enforcing regulations.

But Langen admits the division is still grappling with how to define its role as a licensing body.

"We need to do a better job," she said.


Probationary licenses issued by state to King County day cares:

1999 -- 33

2000 -- 21

2001 -- 917

Suspended licenses issued:

1999 -- 2

2000 -- 1

2001 -- 0

Revoked licenses issued:

1999 -- 4

2000 -- 4

2001 -- 1

Parents for Safe Child Care is a 501(c)(3) non-profit