State officials “could have done a better job” handling a day care center in Lyman where investigators found that a co-owner was “abusive, humiliating and intimidating” to children in her care, said the head of the agency that oversees licensing of day care centers in Maine.

Kenneth Albert, director of the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said Thursday in a conference call that his division is reviewing why the state gave the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool a conditional license to operate after the investigation last summer, and didn’t revoke its license.

Investigators reported that Cheryl Dubois slammed a child to the floor, forced children to put soap in their mouths, and pulled a chair out from under a child who suffered a bruise and a cut, among other incidents.

“I am pursuing this situation,” Albert said. “I want to have an appreciation of all the facts and understand why certain decisions were made.” He said the review will be internal and will not be released to the public, so employees will be encouraged to be open and admit mistakes.

Albert said his division has already started making changes, such as a new policy to inform parents if the DHHS is investigating an allegation that their child was abused at a day care center.

The division also is looking into launching a website to post its investigative reports online, and possibly implementing a system to fingerprint day care operators and employees to check for allegations of abuse or criminal behavior in their past.

Albert could not say when the website or the fingerprint system might be implemented.

In a 90-minute conference call with the media, he said one of the most troubling aspects of the case in Lyman was comments from parents who felt the state hadn’t done enough to protect children from abuse.

“It’s really disheartening that a Maine citizen would feel we had let them down,”

NEW POLICY TO NOTIFY PARENTS

The conference call followed news reports about abuse of children at the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool, which closed two weeks ago.

In response to a Freedom of Access request by the Portland Press Herald, the DHHS later released a list of 21 day care centers and operators that were given conditional licenses in 2013, and four whose licenses were revoked. The Press Herald also requested investigative reports on those centers and operators, which the department has not released.

Albert said changes have been made in response to the case in Lyman, including the policy to inform parents about investigations involving their children. “A parent should have the right to have that information,” he said.

He said the policy was adopted in October and typically will involve notifying a parent in the course of getting permission to speak to their child. He said parents will be told an investigation is being done, the nature of the accusation, a notification of the results of the investigation, and information on any action taken.

Albert said he doesn’t think any parents have been informed yet about investigations involving their children.

Brett Williams of Sanford said the information-sharing is a good first step.

The investigative report on the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool said Dubois swaddled an infant so tightly that his eyes became bloodshot. The incident occurred at least three years ago, but Williams and his wife, Hannah, didn’t learn that it was their son who had been mistreated until news about the day care center appeared this month and a former day care worker told them what she had seen.

When the state tells parents about such cases, “parents’ and children’s rights are superseding the rights of a day care center,” Williams said.

PARENT CRITICAL OF DHHS DECISION

But Williams, who heard Albert’s conference call, said other aspects of the state’s response are still troubling.

For instance, the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool got a letter from the DHHS in October 2012 that outlined many of the same incidents that were documented in the report in August 2013. That report left the day care center with a conditional license and one year to correct problems.

The letter in 2012 was only a series of reminders that certain acts, such as “hitting children in the mouth, grabbing them by the arm, slamming them on the floor,” violate DHHS rules. The letter concluded that the DHHS would not take any action to revoke the center’s license, but “wanted to bring to your attention information that was gathered as a result of the investigation.”

Albert said that letter was issued after the DHHS investigated allegations of abuse in 2012 and reviewed its findings with in-house lawyers, who felt any change in the license might not hold up if Dubois appealed.

Williams wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

“I just can’t imagine any legal proceedings that would find in favor, in this case, of (co-owners) Cheryl and Dan (Dubois),” Williams said. “To say I’m confused is an understatement.”

In the conference call, Albert discussed future changes, including up-to-date, online information on day care center investigations. He could not say when they might be implemented.

The DHHS now has a website to help parents find day care for their children. It is operated by an office in the DHHS separate from the licensing division, and lists dozens of day care centers and home-based day cares.

Some of the listings include state ratings but several are incorrect. A center whose license was revoked last year is still listed on the site as operating. Two day care centers that are operating on conditional licenses are rated as meeting state regulations and having no serious licensing violations. The site does not mention that any of the centers or operators might have conditional licenses.

FINGERPRINTING SYSTEM CONSIDERED

Albert said the DHHS has located grants to pay for development of a new website, but officials don’t know if they need approval from the Legislature before moving ahead. Once they decide, he said, his division will solicit proposals from operators, a process that usually takes about six months. Work on developing a new site would not even start before then.

He said the fingerprinting system for day care operators and employees could be developed from a trial program that’s under way to beef up licensing of long-term care workers. That would address a problem uncovered when investigators found that Cheryl Dubois had not disclosed her previous involvement with state child protective service workers, he said.

The investigative report did not say what caused the DHHS’ Office of Child and Family Services to look into Dubois, and the licensing division didn’t catch her failure to disclose it because it occurred before she married and changed her name.

“We rely on the good-faith representations of people to be truthful,” Albert said. Dubois’ failure to do so “is concerning to me.” The licensing division asks applicants to list previous names or aliases, he said, but it can’t verify that information. Albert said that’s “a gap” that could be corrected by a fingerprinting system tied to state and federal databases.

He said he doesn’t know when the system for long-term care workers will be ready, and when it might be extended to day care workers, a step that would require legislative approval.

Albert also said his division is looking to hire two new licensers, who make annual visits to day care centers and three to four annual checks on centers with conditional licenses.

He said the department has 12 positions, but two are open. Still, Albert said, most of the investigations are up to date, except in York County, where they have fallen behind slightly.

Albert said he thinks the changes will help, but he can’t make a blanket promise that every poorly run day care will be shut down.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]