Two former state child care inspectors say managers in the Department of Health and Human Services knew about abuse and neglect at day cares but often did nothing, letting staff reports on abuse languish on their desks for months or years and harassing inspectors who pressed for more action.
“These were not isolated cases. It was universal,” said Nicole White, a former inspector.
In one case, White said, she wrote reports about a day care with numerous violations – including an incident in 2011 in which the day care refused to call an ambulance for a child who was bleeding profusely from a cut on the head that exposed the child’s skull – but her supervisor refused to shut it down.
White and a former co-worker, 20-year employee Charley LaFlamme, described a DHHS child care licensing division in which managers were reluctant to penalize the problem facilities. They told the Portland Press Herald this week that they were disciplined by the department in retaliation for pushing for better enforcement of state rules.
White and LaFlamme are cooperating with the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, which may pursue an investigation of the child care division. Their claims were corroborated, at least in one case, by DHHS documents, a parent and a former day care employee.
“The managers wouldn’t even look at reports for six to nine months. This was common,” LaFlamme said. “I thought we were there to protect the children. These (supervisors) are people who shouldn’t be in the business.”
The division’s director, Kenneth Albert, strongly objected Wednesday to the characterization of the managers, and said the public should be suspicious of the motives of ex-employees making “disparaging” comments.
“I disagree. I don’t even know what they’re talking about,” Albert said, referring to the allegations that reports languished on managers’ desks.
He said reforms are coming, including staffing increases for child care licensing, which has come under scrutiny since a high-profile abuse case at a day care center in Lyman became public in January.
“We are making significant headway,” he said.
Albert has said previously that the department fell short in the case of the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in Lyman, but that doesn’t mean there are systemic problems.
IN LYMAN CASE, SLOW TO ACT ON ABUSE
In the case in Lyman, supervisors ignored findings of abuse for more than a year before taking action last fall, according to DHHS documents obtained Wednesday by the Press Herald.
An inspection report completed by a DHHS inspector on Aug. 23, 2013, refers to previous reports, including investigations in 2003 and 2010 and a May 2012 report that said Sunshine Child Care & Preschool had “numerous licensing violations,” including “physical abuse.”
It’s not clear from the 2013 report whether the allegations from 2003 and 2010 were substantiated, but the report says they included accusations that children were hit and that pepper and soap were put in children’s mouths.
Although the inspector who compiled the report in May 2012 concluded that the alleged abuse did occur, the state took no action for more than a year, according to the report filed in August.
Cheryl Dubois, a co-owner of the day care center, declined comment when contacted Wednesday by the Press Herald. Her husband, Daniel Dubois, has denied the accusations, calling them a “witch hunt.”
The couple closed their day care center in January, after the accusations became public and parents started withdrawing their children.
All reports from child care inspectors go to DHHS managers, who decide whether to revoke day care licenses, issue conditional licenses or do nothing. A conditional license is similar to probation; any day care that has one must meet certain criteria or risk losing its license.
CHARGE: INACTION EASIEST FOR MANAGERS
Sunshine Child Care & Preschool was given a conditional license in 2013. LaFlamme, who was brought into the case in the latter stages to help other inspectors, said he was shocked to see evidence of abuse dating back years.
“I thought, ‘Geez, what the heck happened here? Why are they still operating?’ ” said LaFlamme, who retired this month.
He said a conversation with co-workers who had been on the case for more than a year showed him that the case fit a familiar pattern.
One co-worker “said it sat on (a manager’s) desk for a year and they didn’t do anything,” LaFlamme said. He said the co-worker asked managers about the status of the case, only to be ignored or put off.
The center operated with a conditional license for about four months, until it closed.
White and LaFlamme said the agency’s management culture – dating back many years and spanning both Democratic and Republican gubernatorial administrations – is to do as little as possible because it’s the easiest path.
“Revoking a license or giving a conditional license is hard work,” White said. “You have to get an assistant attorney general involved. There’s lots of paperwork. It’s much easier to do nothing.”
PARENT SAYS COMPLAINTS WERE IGNORED
Sara Bachelder, whose two children attended the day care in Lyman, and a former employee both said they complained to the DHHS in 2011 and 2012 but nothing was done.
She said the DHHS told her in 2012 that the day care would be allowed to keep its license, despite reports of abuse involving one of her children and others.
Bachelder said she interviewed many parents and former workers, took notes and passed along all of the information to the DHHS in 2012.
“I said, ‘Here. I did a gift-wrapped investigation for you,’ ” she said, but nothing was done.
Bachelder said it bothered her to drive past the day care every day, knowing that children could be in danger. “It could drive you crazy thinking about it, if you let it. It was a very helpless feeling,” she said.
The former worker, who did not want to be identified because she feared repercussions, said that in 2011 she saw unkind treatment of children, force-feeding of milk, and a child being swaddled so tightly that his eyes bulged and became bloodshot. She said she complained to the DHHS but never heard back.
The swaddling incident ended up in a conditional-license report in August 2013, more than two years after it happened.
MANAGER CALLED ENFORCEMENT BARRIER
Wes Uhlman, a child care licensing compliance officer for the DHHS, sent a letter to the owners of the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in October 2012, saying the department was “concerned” about allegations stemming from a DHHS investigation that spring. The letter reminded Cheryl and Daniel Dubois that “hitting children in the mouth,” “slapping,” “slamming them on the floor” “pushing a child’s face into a mat,” force-feeding children and other acts violated licensing standards.
The letter did not say explicitly that those incidents happened at the center, but the 2013 report obtained by the Press Herald on Wednesday reveals that a state inspector found evidence in 2012 of “physical abuse.”
Uhlman’s letter told the Duboises that “the department is not taking any licensing action at this time.”
The letter shows how the department often handles abuse accusations, said White and LaFlamme – by sweeping them under the rug.
The two described Uhlman as a barrier to enforcement because many reports are funneled to him and he is reluctant to take action.
“You had to go around this guy, if you could,” LaFlamme said. “He was a major roadblock. He once told me that I would get along fine with him as long as I didn’t bring any attention to him, and not to make any waves. He and I do not share the same value system.”
Uhlman did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. A DHHS spokesman, John Martins, said Uhlman was declining interviews. A subsequent email from the Press Herald to Uhlman went unanswered.
LaFlamme and White said Uhlman, a middle manager, is supported by upper management.
When asked about Uhlman, Albert, the division’s director, said he had no comment.
UPSET THAT ‘KIDS WERE GETTING HURT’
White said that after she pushed for Uhlman to take action on cases, she was targeted by him, and ultimately was forced out in late 2012. She said she resigned under pressure after her work life became too stressful. White said she received several verbal and written reprimands for what she described as petty offenses, but was never suspended or put on leave.
She said that during her five years in child care licensing, she discovered about 10 day cares that should have had their licenses revoked or been issued conditional licenses, but management agreed to only one conditional license. The conditional status was later lifted, she said, and the day care continued to operate.
White, 41, said the violations ranged from rat and lice infestations to children being restrained, toddlers wandering on busy roads, a cabinet falling on an infant, and day cares not having enough food to feed the children.
In the day care where the cabinet fell, she said, she reinspected and the cabinet was still not attached to a wall.
Nonetheless, White said, managers refused to take action.
“It was very, very disheartening,” said White, who lives in Gardiner and now runs an after-school program. She said she often couldn’t sleep, knowing that her work was ineffective. “Kids were getting hurt.”
White would not name the day cares she was referring to because they didn’t lose their licenses or continue on conditional licenses, and there are no public documents about the violations. Some later changed owners or may have improved on their own, White said.
She and LaFlamme said 90 percent of the day cares in Maine are run professionally and don’t have major problems. They said inspectors are needed because of the other 10 percent.
PENALIZED FOR TRYING TO FORCE ACTION
LaFlamme, who lives in Wells, said that, to be most effective, he learned to involve management as little as possible. He said he knew that persuading DHHS managers to issue conditional licenses was difficult, so he would reinspect places numerous times.
If he was persistent enough, he said, most would correct problems without needing conditional licenses. LaFlamme said managers would write him emails, which he ignored, telling him not to visit the places so many times.
He said that when he needed a manager’s signature for a conditional license or revocation, he would take steps to ensure that managers would have as little work as possible.
“I would go to (Uhlman’s) desk and take the reports off of his desk, write everything up that he was supposed to do, and give it to him to sign. I was doing my job and his job,” LaFlamme said.
Both inspectors said they were targeted by management for pushing for better enforcement and, in LaFlamme’s case, for arguing that there weren’t enough inspectors.
White said she was required to fill out voluminous paperwork documenting her every task, and to check in at her Portland office twice a day, within an eight-minute window. She said that if a major storm slowed her, or a car accident, she was written up as being “absent without leave.”
White said she considered her treatment harassment.
STAFFING LEVEL HAS BEEN IN DECLINE
LaFlamme was put on paid administrative leave in November for making “disparaging” comments about the department. He said he was never told what the comments were, but he believes he was blacklisted by management because he spoke up about the low staffing levels at a meeting in June.
Maine has one of the nation’s lowest ratios of inspectors per child care facility, and the state’s 11 inspectors have caseloads of nearly 200 facilities.
LaFlamme said that last summer, Albert told the staff that it was losing another inspector, going from 12 to 11. The department had 15 inspectors as recently as 2011, LaFlamme said.
Albert, who became the director of the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services in 2012, said the Lyman case has caused the department to re-evaluate the way it does business. Changes are happening, he said, including informing parents when their children are the subject of abuse investigations, putting inspection reports online and increasing staffing.
“We’re going to be increasing by 11 (employees),” said Albert, and eight or nine of the positions will be day care inspectors. “We’ve identified a grant funding source. These are all existing funds and we will not be taking away from other departments,” he said.
Albert said other components of the staffing increase, including how much it would cost, will be explained in further detail later.
LaFlamme said he told Albert last summer that increasing caseloads would make it difficult to be effective. After that, LaFlamme said, management made his life difficult.
LaFlamme, 65, said his appeal of his administrative leave case was still pending, but he decided this month to retire rather than deal with it any longer.
INVESTIGATION OF DIVISION POSSIBLE
The two former inspectors could be part of a state agency’s investigation, if the Government Oversight Committee decides Friday or at an upcoming meeting to take up the case. The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability would investigate child care licensing.
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, who serves on the oversight committee, and Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, have been encouraging the two to tell their stories, believing they may lead to more sweeping changes.
Farnsworth said he’s disturbed by the accusations, and it looks like major changes have to be made.
“They’ve developed a negative culture there, and it’s preventing the employees from doing their job,” he said.
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: