Child-care Providers Struggle with Law

By ALBERT McKEON Telegraph Staff Writer

Louise Scanzani was falling asleep on the job.

Scanzani, who operates Louise’s Child Care out of her Pelham home, admitted to the state she had sometimes slept in her bedroom while the nine children she supervised took afternoon naps.

The state Bureau of Child Care Licensing investigated the small program in 2003 after a parent complained about the owner’s siestas. Scanzani initially protested the state’s finding that she had committed a critical safety violation, arguing she had a sound monitor in her room and checked the kids frequently with the help of her 16-year-old son.

But the state found her response unsatisfactory. The bureau had Scanzani submit a second resolution on a form known as a corrective action plan. This time, she simply agreed to not sleep while caring for children – even if they were napping. It was the answer the state wanted all along.

This exchange can be found in records the bureau keeps on Louise’s Child Care and every other licensed program in the state. Those files in many ways reflect how programs handle the daily demands of supervising children while keeping their facilities safe and properly staffed.

A Telegraph review of the records of every licensed child-care center and home provider in the Nashua area over a three-year period revealed most programs meet the state’s expectations.

But 111 of the 188 programs still had at least one critical violation. Eleven programs had at least nine critical violations.

A critical violation means a program has broken a rule the state considers vital to protecting the health and safety of children. Violations are typically uncovered either though state inspections or public complaints, and providers must submit a corrective action plan to demonstrate how they aim to prevent further infractions.

Violations range from the seemingly mundane – cigarette butts lying on the ground – to more obvious hazards: a child care worker’s improper physical and verbal treatment of children, or harmful chemicals within reach of kids. Deficient staffing is also a critical violation; a program short on trained teachers and assistants can’t adequately supervise children.

Most programs moved quickly to remedy any problems. But a review of the files for all area programs from January 2003 to May 2006 found a handful of providers initially declined to accept the bureau’s findings. The providers, for reasons that differed, offered resolutions unacceptable to the state, and were asked to go back to the drawing board.

The process of assessing violations is, in essence, one-sided: State licensors determine that a program has broken a rule through observation and investigation. If providers refuse to acknowledge they have committed a violation, they have no means to protest unless that infraction leads to punitive action, either a fine or license revocation.

The bureau rarely revokes licenses, though, choosing instead to work with providers. But the state will close a program if a provider fails to immediately eliminate any serious danger to children.

Overall, the bureau wants to help and not hurt providers, according to Mary Castelli, director of operations for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Several critical violations don’t necessarily mean a program is wholly deficient, Castelli and others in the field said.

Critical care

A licensed program can also commit a less-serious, non-critical violation, an infraction that doesn’t directly affect a child’s safety but is still deemed problematic. These include not having enough toilet paper or not keeping current immunization records on file.

A program can avoid critical violations, but could still be cited for a string of non-critical violations that could cumulatively affect a child’s care.

Two area child-care experts agree with Castelli that having a few violations doesn’t necessarily make for a bad program.

Seeing how a provider responds to a violation in its corrective action plan can be more insightful than the violation itself, said Deirdre O’Hare and Kathleen Mercier of Nashua Area Child Care Resource & Referral, an agency that helps parents find child care. Moreover, state standards are just a part of what parents need to look at when dealing with a child-care program, and a violation can open the necessary communication parents should have with that provider, they said.

Scanzani, whose naps had troubled the state, either didn’t realize she had committed a violation or simply decided to fight the system when she initially filed a corrective action plan. She declined to comment for this story.

Some parents may look askance at the expectation a child-care provider should stay awake. After all, what parent hasn’t tried to catch a few winks while his or her children slept?

But the state expects much more from the 1,200 child-care programs licensed to operate in New Hampshire. Programs must follow an extensive list of safety and staffing rules all based on state law.

Only one program in this area had a spotless record over the three-year period reviewed by The Telegraph: Wilton Head Start Center had no critical and non-critical violations.

Sue Chipman, manager of the small program, credited the cohesiveness of the four-member staff in avoiding any violations. They make a habit of double-checking electrical outlets for covers and cabinets for safety locks, and keep an eye out for dangling cords and sharp or worn toys, she said.

A few programs had only one box marked on a non-critical checklist, or a notation to fix something minor – all just a step away from bureaucratic perfection.

Of the 188 programs examined, 111 of them had at least one critical violation between January 2003 and May 2006, while 77 of them had none. (In some cases, a program committed one infraction, but it broke more than one rule or law – meaning the one offense counted as several violations.)

The Telegraph study didn’t find a significant statistical difference between violations committed at home-based programs and those at larger centers. Larger facilities – with bigger staffs and usually with more tools at their disposal – were just as likely to break a rule as a small home program.

Violations

Eleven programs had at least nine critical violations:

Gael’s Family Day Care, an eight-child home program in Pelham that surrendered its license in May, had the most critical violations of any area program with 32.

Provider Gael Ouellette already had a slew of safety violations. But the final straw for the state came in January, when Ouellette’s 13-year-old daughter admitted to taking the program’s school-age children (those 6 and older) to the woods so that they could “show, touch and kiss each other’s private parts,” according to bureau documents.

A parent once overheard Ouellette chastising her daughter for such behavior, but Ouellette allowed it to continue, the documents said. When the licensing bureau investigated, it also learned that the previous summer a 10-month-old child fell down a 15-step staircase on an outdoor deck while Ouellette was likely inside the house on the computer, the documents said. She then lied about the incident to the state licensor, the documents said.

Ouellette cannot apply for another license for at least five years. But in a telephone interview last month, Ouellette said she gave up her license to pursue another line of work, and voluntary revocation had nothing to do with the violations. State officials, though, said they would have pursued revocation if Ouellette didn’t agree to shut down.

Circle of Learning, the Nashua facility that had employed a man criminally charged with molesting 12 children, had the second most: 28 critical violations, none of which were directly related to Shane Vadney’s arrest. The program has a capacity of 124 children.

Last month, the bureau revoked Circle of Learning’s license, citing allegations that owner Georgia Flynn bilked the state out of about $10,000 by misusing tuition reimbursement forms. Flynn is appealing the revocation.

Well publicized by now, some of the critical violations at Circle of Learning included inadequate staff-to-child ratios, a child standing outside in cold weather with no pants, a teacher yelling at children and parents complaining Flynn’s two dogs were aggressive and near children.

Vadney’s alleged abuse was not cited as a violation because it is a criminal matter and technically not a bureau finding, Department of Health and Human Services Spokesman Greg Moore said. Also, if alleged abuse isn’t referenced on a bureau statement of finding, it means the provider wasn’t aware of the offense or negligent, Moore said.

Minds in Motion, another Nashua facility with an abundance of children (capacity of 96), had 16 critical violations.

Violations at Minds in Motion included a child climbing over a gate and out a door, and a worker picking up children and dragging them across the floor. Also, a 13-year-old without CPR or first aid training helped supervise kids on a field trip with two other young assistants who also lacked such training.

Keeper of the Stars, a program in Nashua with a capacity of 20 children, had 12 violations. But, as an example of how one infraction can be reflected as several violations, four violations at this program focused on director Cecile Routhier allowing children to play inside her home, an area not approved by the state.

Follow the Rainbow Day Carein Nashua had 11 critical violations. The 20-child capacity nursery and center had a mix of staffing and safety violations.

Anctil’s Martial Arts in Nashua had 10 violations, mostly record-keeping issues. The owner, Robert Anctil, declined to comment on his struggle with the state in rectifying the violations; initially many of his remedies were rejected by the state but revised corrective plans have since been approved.

Anctil would only say his facility shouldn’t be categorized as a child care center because it’s an after-school program offering children life skills – such as discipline and self-reliance – that rise above basic child care. He further protested the state has him also listed as a fitness center.

Ann Marie Family Child Care in Hudson, a small home-based program, had four more critical violations than children: 10 to six.

Kiddie Academy of Windham, a 138-child capacity facility, also had 10 violations.

Gingerbread House in Hudson had nine violations, and all were found on a recent visit in April. There were 23 children attending the 12-child-capacity facility. Owner Carol Boudreau said the 11 extra children were from a program she had closed – The Gingerbread House Kindergarten, also in Hudson – and parents had approved their children attending this new facility.

Miller Family Day Care in Windham was also written up nine times, meaning it had as many critical violations as it does children.

And Cheryl’s Day Care, a home program in Hudson, had nine violations that included provider Cheryl Sullivan giving the licensing bureau false statements.

The bureau determined her brother, who was a convicted felon, had lived there for about a month in the fall of 2005. She disputed that she lied to the state about it, but was found in violation of regulations anyway, according to the records.

With the exception of Sullivan at Minds in Motion, Ouellette at Gael’s Family Day Care, Flynn at Circle of Learning, Anctil at the martial arts studio and Boudreau at The Gingerbread House, the other providers didn’t return phone calls, could not be reached or declined to comment.

More violations

Nine programs left children unattended, for a variety of reasons and for periods lasting up to 10 minutes. Gael’s Family Day Care, Minds In Motion, Follow the Rainbow Day Care, Southern New Hampshire Services Child Development Center in Nashua, Sunrise Children’s Center in Amherst, Kids Inn of Merrimack, Karen’s Family Childcare in Merrimack, Dynamic Foundations for Children in Pelham and Kiddie Academy of Windham were all cited for this critical violation.

It happened twice in one year at Kiddie Academy of Windham. In March 2004, a 2-year-old child was left alone in a foyer, and later in December, a child was alone outside on a playground for about 5 minutes.

March was not a good month for the facility that year. The program also filed its own report with the state, relaying that a staff member had dragged a 4-year-old boy by his arm across the floor when he refused to walk.

A parent complained that several children at the Kids Club, a program at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Nashua, had broken bones on the playground. The state investigated and learned that one child broke an arm in September 2003, and it was because the kid fell from monkey bars onto a thin layer of absorptive material. There were only two inches of material, not the required eight inches.

Eight programs failed to complete criminal background checks.

Twenty-nine providers left cleaning products or other harmful substances on shelves or in unsecured cabinets within reach of children.

Fifty-seven programs had immediate safety risks such as exposed nails, furniture foam and electrical wiring; razors, knifes or scissors within reach of children and unstable shelving and dangling cords.

Eighteen programs exceeded the maximum number of children they can supervise, with most of those violations committed at home-based programs. Eight programs had staffing issues: not having enough qualified personnel handling children for part or all of the day.

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