AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Friday to investigate the Department of Health and Human Services’ child care licensing division, in which managers have been accused of letting reports of abuse and neglect languish for months or years without acting.
The vote came a day after the Portland Press Herald published a report in which two former DHHS child care inspectors gave detailed accounts of the agency’s lack of response to violations.
With the committee’s vote, the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability will look into the way the state does child care licensing investigations, and whether there’s appropriate follow-up by managers.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in an interview Friday that her department welcomes the investigation and input.
“I have a lot of respect for OPEGA,” Mayhew said. “Their reports have added value” to the DHHS.
The safety of children in Maine’s more than 2,000 day care facilities has come under scrutiny since January, when reports of abuse at a day care center in Lyman became public. Documents obtained by the Press Herald revealed that DHHS managers waited more than a year to take action against the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool after inspectors concluded that the abuse occurred.
Nicole White, a former inspector who came forward along with her former colleague Charley LaFlamme to highlight problems with the state’s licensing program, said the committee’s decision Friday was “awesome.”
“I think there’s finally hope,” White said. “It gives me hope for the kids. Without this, I don’t believe change would have occurred.”
White and LaFlamme allege that managers harassed them for pushing to sanction or close day care facilities.â
White said she is confident that investigators will find proof that managers delayed action on abuse reports. She said everything is meticulously documented, and the facts won’t be denied.
“I know they’re going to validate our concerns,” White said.
The unanimous vote signaled strong bipartisan consensus on the committee, which has six Republicans and six Democrats.
“If this were happening to my child or grandchild, I would go berserk,” said Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston. “It’s really upsetting.”
The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability does several investigations each year. Last year, it issued four reports and worked on four others, according to its website, including reviews of the Maine State Housing Authority and the Public Utilities Commission.
In 2011, it investigated the Maine Turnpike Authority and the authority’s former director, who later went to prison for stealing $150,000 to $230,000 from the authority in the form of credit card purchases and gift cards for personal use from 2003 to 2010.
The office has subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify, if necessary. Director Beth Ashcroft said that in the next few weeks, her office will prioritize when to begin work on the child care licensing review and determine how long it will take. Lawmakers urged quick action.
“There’s a great deal of immediacy, considering what has come to light about the safety of children,” said Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville.
Mayhew would not discuss the specific accusations made by LaFlamme and White, but said that work-flow standards are needed, and that the child care licensing division is already working to implement such standards.
“We are making it so that (employees) can track the work and the work flow, making sure that people are meeting timelines and deadlines,” said Mayhew, who agreed that the reports of cases sitting on desks for months would be a concern, if true.
Kenneth Albert, director of the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services, told the Press Herald on Wednesday that he disagreed with White and LaFlamme that there were systemic problems in the division.
He has said the department fell short in the case of the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool, which closed on its own in January after the reports became public and parents started withdrawing their children. Co-owners Cheryl and Dan Dubois have denied the accusations.
Among the pending child care licensing improvements are: informing parents when their children are subjects of abuse investigations; putting inspection reports online; and increasing staffing. Albert has said the division will expand by 11 employees, including eight or nine inspectors. That would nearly double the number of inspectors.
The state currently has one of the nation’s lowest ratios of child care inspectors per facility, according to Child Care Aware of America.
In a statement released Friday, Albert wrote that, with changes made in the past two years and an internal review of the Lyman case, the “DLRS has transformed its structure in virtually all program areas and made significant program improvements by realigning staff to improve information sharing; consolidating program leadership; and evaluating all processes and state laws to identify areas of opportunity for improvement. This has led to a change in the Division’s culture, as well as recognition and implementation of best practices.”
State officials have said they will work to get inspection reports online to give parents easier access to information about the safety of day care facilities. Many states already put such reports online.
While DHHS officials have said that mission could take as long as a year, Mayhew said she hopes there could be an interim plan for getting them online as soon as possible while the full website takes shape.
Bill Hager, public policy director of the Alliance for Children’s Care, a trade association representing day care facilities, said he’s happy to see program evaluations go beyond the number of inspectors needed.
“What was found (in the Press Herald’s stories) is consistent with the evidence we’ve been able to see in the community. It’s very difficult to close down bad programs,” Hager said.
Sara Bachelder of Biddeford, whose children went to the Sunshine day care center, has since become a child care advocate. She said she wrote to all of the Government Oversight Committee members, urging them to take on the case.
She said she looks forward to reading the completed report, which will be public. “Up to now, all of the reviews have been very private, confidential and internal. This gives it transparency,” she said.
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: