By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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By Kelsey McClure
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Gormley says intermediate sanctions -- such as fines and the posting of violations on the front door or in another prominent location -- are critical because the lesser ones, like the warnings or corrective-action plans used in Missouri, are unlikely to have much of an effect and because the more serious ones, like closure, are unlikely to be invoked.
Nineteen states impose fines on centers, and 16 fine family-care homes. Missouri does neither.
Instead, Missouri relies on a tiered process of corrective-action plans, facility-review conferences and, in more serious cases, formal letters of warning or censure. If those methods fail, the state will pursue "settlement agreements" in which a provider agrees to waive a formal disciplinary-hearing process in exchange for being allowed to continue operating under a series of conditions set by the state. Recent legislation also made it easier for the state to suspend a license if a child is in "imminent harm," requiring the facility to close immediately.
The Greater Dimension Child Care Center in Cape Girardeau signed a settlement agreement with the state in March 1999 after the center dropped three children off at school -- the wrong school -- for summer session. The children walked 10 blocks to a Sav-A-Lot store to call a family friend, a trip that included crossing a busy street. The woman who drove them to school, it turned out, did not even have a valid driver's license, only a driver's permit. As part of the settlement agreement, Greater Dimension was allowed to keep operating, but the center agreed to record all transportation provided to children, to secure written authorization from each child's parent, to develop a written transportation plan and to make copies of the licenses of any workers who transport children. It was also placed under "close supervision" for six months, during which time inspectors could make unannounced visits at least once a month.
Often, there is a tremendous lag time between when a potentially dangerous incident occurs and when a settlement agreement is signed.
In December 1996, Estanya Collins of Kansas City admitted leaving a 4- year-old in her car outside a Wal-Mart while she shopped for Christmas presents. It was 8 degrees outside at the time. The state, however, did not learn of the incident until a child-abuse screening was conducted as part of her license renewal in October 1998. Her license to care for 10 children was renewed. As part of the settlement agreement, she agreed to undergo 12 hours of child-care training, to work under close supervision for 12 months, to keep a log anytime she transports a child and to bring an approved adult assistant along on trips. The agreement wasn't signed until March 1999.
Franklin, head of child-care regulation in Missouri, says that because the screenings are only done every two years as part of the licensing process, an incident that occurs shortly after a license renewal might not be brought to the state's attention until much, much later. In 1999, she adds, the state was changing its procedures in handling settlement agreements: "We were reframing how we were doing those, so that might speak to some of the lag time. We are trying to improve the lag time."
In the highly unlikely scenario (at least in Missouri) that a facility has its license revoked, it can still care for four unrelated children in a home; nothing in the laws prohibits a previously disciplined child-care provider from doing so as long as it does not receive state or federal subsidies.
As for workers, although the state is supposed to check its child-abuse-and-neglect registry, someone who was fired from a facility for hitting a child, for instance, may not show up in that registry. Before the state will issue substantiation of a finding of physical abuse, there must be a documentable injury, such as a bruise, bite mark or broken bone. Emotional abuse is even more difficult to substantiate, says Dewey Riehn, director of the out-of-home investigative unit of the Missouri Division of Family Services. If a worker is accused of locking a child in a darkened room, for instance, a professional must also attest that the incident triggered a specific behavior, such as a return to thumb-sucking in an older child.
And though criminal-background checks are required of workers at licensed or subsidized child-care facilities, even a jury's conviction doesn't necessarily put someone out of the child-care business.
Consider the case of Denise Williams of Kansas City. In September 1996, the state renewed her family-daycare-home license to care for up to 10 children. In July 1997, she was convicted of three counts of endangering the welfare of a child, a Class A misdemeanor. Her crime was leaving three children alone in a van in 90-degree weather. Security officers found the children "very hot, sweating heavily, and complaining of thirst." It was unclear how long they had been left in the van. Despite the conviction, Williams was allowed to continue operating her child-care home. In a settlement agreement signed in May 1999 -- almost two years after her conviction -- she agreed not to transport any children unless it was an emergency, and then only with an approved adult assistant. She agreed to undergo 12 hours of training, and her facility was placed on 12 months of close supervision.