The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is trying to improve transparency about enforcement actions it takes to ensure the safety and welfare of children attending licensed child care facilities in Maine, but reporting by Maine Public shows that it has fallen short of its own goals in at least one case, while advocates say it is still too difficult for parents to research a facility’s quality and history.
State documents reveal that within the last year, there was a serious set of child safety violations at the Old Town-Orono YMCA child care center.
They have since been corrected, but over the course of multiple inspections in late 2018 and early this year, a state inspector documented instances of staff pulling infants by their arms, kicking and slapping children, pressing them down to make them sleep, eating their lunches, feeding them restricted food and swearing at them.
The reports do not make it clear whether more than one staffer was responsible for the rough handling, and the state did not provide comment to Maine Public about those details. The inspector’s report does say five staffers failed to immediately report the abuse to authorities, as required.
The facility’s full license was revoked and replaced by a conditional license that required all the violations to be corrected within two weeks or less. Two months later, the Y and the state signed a consent agreement detailing the requirements, and its full two-year license was restored.
The consent agreement can be found on the state website. But until Maine Public made a freedom of access request, the site did not include any details of the actual violations that occurred.
After being questioned about the case, a state spokeswoman said that the inspector’s reports should in fact have been posted on the website. They have since been made available here.
In an email, Old Town-Orono YMCA Executive Director Debra Boyd wrote that the organization was unable to comment, but that the center has a 20-year history of compliance.
In most cases of significant violations, going back five years, the state does appear to have properly posted most records. But some serious allegations were only revealed through the freedom of access request.
That’s because some records for facilities that have had their licenses voided — or that have gone under new ownership following a revocation — are removed from the website. In Lewiston last year, the state voided the license for one child care center in response to numerous violations that ranged from poor care to failing to report that one of the directors had been convicted of unlawfully touching a minor.
The center is now under new ownership and management, so the public can see on the state website that the new owners have a provisional license. But the reports on violations by the previous owners are not on the website, because that business does not exist anymore.
There are other instances in which a license was voided and the records removed from the website because the facility went under new ownership. The state says that when a new owner takes over a deficient facility, it receives a heightened level of scrutiny as it gets up and running.
State officials say parents are welcome to contact inspectors if they have questions about any facility they find on the website. Inspectors’ contact information is included on the childcarechoices.me website.
There are some 1,800 licensed child care programs in the state, which serve more than 40,000 children. Every one of them gets an unannounced inspection at least once a year, and can expect more frequent monitoring when any deficiencies are found.
In fiscal 2018, state statistics show there were no deaths at Maine child care facilities, seven serious injuries and three cases of child abuse.
“Here in Maine, child care is very safe. There aren’t a lot of serious injuries, there aren’t a lot of deaths and it’s a fact,” says Janet Whitten, the state’s chief compliance officer. “If we impose a licensing action — a conditional license or issue a letter of deficiency — the intent is to try to bring the provider back into compliance as soon as possible.”
One goal of the website childcarechoices.me is to allow parents to search for providers by location or zip code and click through to see licenses and other documents. And for participating facilities, parents can find a numerical score that rates their quality based on national standards.
Still, some children’s advocates fault the state’s website for unwieldiness, and say it’s still too hard for parents to thoroughly research a facility’s quality and history. Rita Furlow, a senior policy analyst at the Maine Children’s Alliance, says that the state has a long way to go to comply with the federal government’s most recent regulations.
“I still don’t think Maine is anywhere close to where the feds were hoping states would be, in terms of being able to have parents get information about what child care is available to them, easily understand the licensing issues, understand the quality issues,” she says.
Furlow notes that to avoid losing some federal child care block grant funding, the state will have to complete a number of updates to its rules by this fall, including requiring fingerprint background checks for child care workers.
Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, says he is working to make sure all the rules, including the fingerprint requirements, are updated on time.
In response to the publication of this story, DHHS issued a statement:
The Department received a self-report from the Director of Old Town-Orono YMCA in November of 2018 regarding concerns of child abuse and neglect by a former employee whom the program had immediately terminated upon learning of the employee’s conduct. The Department conducted an investigation that was concluded in January of 2019 citing findings of child abuse and numerous violations of rule. In response , the Department issued a Notice of Conditional License. The Department and Old Town-Orono YMCA entered into a Consent Agreement prior to an administrative hearing, as the program had responded swiftly in reporting the concerns, terminating the employee, and meeting the conditions of the Department. Old Town–Orono YMCA has operated in substantial compliance with regulations for two decades, with three prior compliant investigations since 2011 resulting in minor infractions which required that no action be taken on the license.
The Old Town-Orono YMCA also issued a statement after this story's publication:
It is the YMCA’s policy not to comment on personnel issues or specific investigations or findings by any department or regulatory agency within the State of Maine. However, given Maine Public Radio’s disappointing decision to publish this information online, a response is now warranted.
The violations sited by DHHS from almost 9 months ago concerned the conduct of a single employee. When other staff came forward to report this information to administration, immediate action was taken to ensure the individual that was involved was no longer associated with the YMCA in any way. The Old Town-Orono YMCA Administration immediately self reported this information to the state and invited them in to conduct a thorough investigation. The state communicated all relevant information directly to any family that was involved at that time. While we will not expand on the specific details of the incident, we will say that the employee’s behavior, conduct, and judgment were under no circumstances consistent with the Y’s mission for serving the children in our care. We do conduct reference checks, background check and criminal background checks prior to hiring ANY employee. Additionally, we provide ongoing training for all childcare staff. The Y provided this training to this individual. All of these safeguards were conducted with this employee. This one individual does not represent who we are or what we do.
The Y continues to maintain its longstanding 20+ year history of compliance with Maine’s licensure regulations, and had already put proactive measures in place to ensure ongoing future compliance. We were content to sign a consent agreement which consists of basic licensing expectations that we already consistently adhere to. We remain committed to providing a safe, healthy, and fun learning environment for all our children and members.
To see more about child care in Maine, click here for our Deep Dive.
Correction: An earlier version of this story made an errant reference to DHHS' Office of Child and Family Services. That specific DHHS office is not responsible for child care licensing.