When working parents research childcare for their kids, most will tour the facility, meet the staff and find out about the daily schedule: When do the kids eat? When do they nap? What time is pickup?
The provider's regulatory history may never come up. If a place looks clean and the kids well cared for, parents may not ask about it.
Otherwise, they may never learn about incidents like this one: In June 2012, a 3-year-old boy attending the Ed-U-Care Children's Center, a licensed daycare provider in Essex Junction, walked off the premises and wandered across four lanes of traffic on Susie Wilson Road. Luckily, a passing motorist spotted him in the middle of the road and pulled him out of harm's way.
According to a subsequent investigation by the Vermont Department for Children and Families' Child Development Division, Ed-U-Care staffers never notified authorities that the boy was missing, as required by law whenever a child disappears from a licensed daycare facility. As a state official said later, "Someone just didn't count heads."
Parents researching Ed-U-Care for their daycare needs can check the center's regulatory history on the Bright Futures Child Care Information System — the state's online portal for accessing the regulatory histories of all licensed and registered daycare providers. There, they'll see that Ed-U-Care was cited for 15 violations between February 2006 and June 2012.
But they won't read an account of the June 2012 incident on Susie Wilson Road. The state requires childcare providers send notification letters to parents when serious violations such as this one occur. Those letters include detailed licenser field reports. But the Bright Futures public database indicates only the regulations that were broken — not an account of what actually occurred.
Here's how Bright Futures describes the violations of the June 2012 event: "Each child shall be visually supervised at all times in person by staff (except sleeping infants who are subject to in-person checks every 15 minutes) ... Children must be visually supervised while napping/resting."
Based on this description, a parent wouldn't know whether the provider merely left a toddler napping for a few minutes to change another child's diaper — or, in this case, a child walked out a door and into traffic.
To discover more about the incident, prospective parents have to ask the center or file a public-records request with the state, as journalists do. That's how Kids VT got the details.
Ed-U-Care owner Judith McKenzie claims the June incident was an isolated one — "an unfortunate accident," she says, adding that the staffer who was responsible was fired.
"It was a terrible thing that happened, but it could happen to anybody," explains the 27-year industry veteran. "I've suffered terribly from this, as has everyone in the center."
Indeed, the state inspection afterward didn't find a "pattern of neglect," according to Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner for the Child Development Division — there were no missing fences, unsecured doors or broken gates, she explains. That's why the state didn't suspend or revoke Ed-U-Care's license.
"Certainly, if we had kids walking away from the same place more than one time, we might suspend," she adds. "Kids have walked off the premises even in five-star places ... We just have to make those judgments."
But parents may have reason to question the state's oversight, too. Just because a childcare provider has been licensed by DCF doesn't necessarily mean it's clean, caring, educational or safe.
Officials with the Child Development Division readily admit they lack the staff and funding to visit every program at least once a year, as the law requires — making it virtually impossible to observe any pattern of violations. Some facilities, especially home-based programs, can open for business and operate for years without a state licenser ever setting foot inside to make sure that it's free of safety hazards and has operable smoke alarms, fire extinguishers and carbon monoxide detectors.
Vermont currently has only seven licensing field specialists to oversee and inspect 1577 regulated programs statewide. That's a caseload of 225 programs per licenser — the highest ratio of any state in the country.
That will change this year. The state budget gives CDD funding to hire two additional licensing field specialists, bringing the state's total to nine and reducing the average caseload of each licenser to 178 programs. But Murphy says they'd need another two licensers to inspect all programs annually.
Licensed daycare centers, which are larger and have stricter rules than registered, in-home daycare programs, are far more likely to receive a state visit. Currently, 90 percent of all licensed centers in Vermont are inspected annually, but only 47 percent of home-based programs are.
Elizabeth Meyer is executive director of Child Care Resource in Williston, a nonprofit that helps connect parents with daycare providers. Last year she told the Senate Committee on Appropriations that, all too often, her staff are "the only professionals who lay eyes on a Chittenden County program in a given year." According to her own statistics, in the previous year, licensers visited just 55 percent of all regulated programs in Chittenden County; 14 percent — 44 programs — had no recorded state visits at all.
Even when inspectors do visit and find problems, they rarely suspend or revoke a license. As Murphy explains, regulators "walk a fine line" between protecting children and maintaining an adequate supply of providers to meet the demands of working families.
"Our most important responsibility is to protect the health and safety and well-being of kids in the program. That's number one," Murphy says. "But number two, we also want to build a vibrant system so that when parents are looking, they have good choices to make. So, we want to increase supply. We don't want to just be shutting people down."
She notes that license revocations "tend to be messy" and happen "very rarely — maybe only four or five times a year in center-based programs." In fact, the state revoked only two daycare licenses in 2012, one of which is under appeal and still operating.
"Sometimes," Murphy adds, "it's much better for us and more timely for parents and kids if the provider voluntarily goes out of business."
Murphy says her agency prefers to work with daycare providers to improve their practices. When they don't, she says, mandatory parental-notification letters "allow the parents to say, 'Wow! That's the last straw for me!' And then the market takes care of the problem, because you can't stay open for long if your parents are leaving."
But even if current parents leave, there's often a new crop of clients waiting in the wings. Finding affordable childcare in Vermont, especially for infants and toddlers, is challenging. And not all parents are savvy enough to request and review licenser field reports.
But every parent would want to know about the conditions found at Feels Like Home Playschool, a licensed daycare center in Essex Junction. Feels Like Home racked up 16 violations in 2012 alone, several of which were serious enough to warrant mandatory notification letters home to families.
Here's what the Bright Futures database says about the rules broken: "Derogatory or humiliating remarks made by staff in presence of children or families are prohibited"; "Infants shall be held during bottle feedings unless they are able to hold their own bottle and wish to do so"; and "No employee, volunteer or parent shall use any form of inappropriate discipline or corporal punishment."
Below: A copy of a field investigator's report from Feels Like Home in Essex Junction.
The state licenser's seven-page field report, dated November 6, 2012, paints a far more disturbing picture of the violations at Feels Like Home. That report indicates that a staff member "grabbed and squeezed a child's face with one hand, followed by pushing the child away because the child walked into a puddle."
Another entry indicates that "staff frequently yell at children in an abrupt, harsh tone on an almost daily basis. A staff member was observed yelling at a crying child while face-to-face with this child." That same staffer was later observed "changing to a positive, friendly tone upon a parent's arrival." Still another employee was overheard telling a child, "If you hurt that baby, I swear to God you're gonna sit outside until your mom gets here!"
According to the licenser's report, the "derogatory or humiliating remarks," included "staff call[ing] children names such as hog, retard, moron, idiot, stupid and momma's boy."
Other notes suggest that physical and emotional abuse took place, such as "staff engage in threatening behavior that is frightening for children." In one instance, a teacher "motioned quickly toward the child's head with the back of her hand as if to hit the child, followed by kissing the child on the head."
The licenser further documented that "one teacher held a preschool-age child by the ankles, swinging the child like a bat at a dodgeball thrown at the child by a second teacher ... hitting the child in the chest area several times. The child's arms flailed and the child appeared to be upset."
The licenser also documented potentially life-threatening bottle-feeding practices. In one case, an infant was observed sleeping in a portable crib with a "boppy pillow placed under the infant's head, with a blanket wrapped around the sides to hold the bottle in the infant's mouth."
The licenser immediately notified the facility's managers and staff that such practices put infants at serious risk of choking, as well as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The managers' response? According to the report, she stated that her staff had been "repeatedly" warned not to do this, but that supervisors "don't know what else to do when staff do not follow directions."
Many of the violations documented by the regulator would have gone undetected and unaddressed were it not for independent video footage provided to investigators — footage the state says is no longer available, in response to a records request by Kids VT.
But the report also indicates that staff provided information to licensers on five previous site visits that was "false and designed to impede and deter CDD investigations." In other words, the staff at Feels Like Home evidently knew what they were doing was wrong, if not dangerous and illegal, but did it anyway and tried to cover it up.
This still wasn't enough for the state to suspend the center's license.
"No corporal punishment was observed," says Murphy. Staff behavior "was what we considered inappropriate guidance behavior." She says the licenser spent four days at the facility afterward, which she calls "a long time" — a typical visit lasts a few hours. The owners notified parents and made staff changes, and regulators increased their surveillance with repeated follow-up visits.
"[Our staff] had this huge discussion at the time that kids should not be subjected to this every day, that these people are just mean. And I agreed with them 100 percent," Murphy says. "But again, if I'm going to shut this place down because these people are unpleasant, do I have a valid [reason]?"
A spokesperson for Feels Like Home, who agreed to speak to Kids VT on condition that she not be identified, claims that many of the findings in the state's report were untrue. She claims the allegations about derogatory and humiliating language were actually spoken by parents, not staff. She admits that a child was held by his feet but claims the child "giggled"; she denies that a dodgeball was ever thrown at the child.
The only allegation she admitted to was the most serious: that a child was left sleeping in a crib with a bottle in its mouth.
"Yeah, we deserved that," the spokesperson admits. "It was wrong of them to do it, because we always told them not to," but she claims there was always a staff person nearby.
Such denials run contrary to what several former clients say about Feels Like Home. Those parents, some of whom asked not to be identified, pulled their children out of the Essex Junction center prior to the state's visit in November. All say the state's report is consistent with their own children's experiences there.
One mother says her daughter attended Feels Like Home for about five months. She claims her daughter, who has a speech impediment, often came home crying and complained that staff made fun of her because of the way she talked.
Teeshia Farmer, of Essex, claims she once arrived to pick up her 9-month-old son "on a cold, 40-degree fall day" and found him outside in an "ExerSaucer," soaking wet and crying. She says she pulled him out of the center the next day and never returned.
Melissa Barrows, of Westford, tells Kids VT that she found a "handprint" on her child's arm that clearly showed "three fingers and a ring." She says a staffer admitted to having restrained the child but explained the injury by saying that "some kids bruise easily." She, too, reports that her child often came home complaining that the "daycare people were being mean to me" and "calling me names."
"I couldn't get my child out of there fast enough," Barrows adds. "I can't believe this place is still open."
It is, though. They have about 20 clients and are advertising openings for more.