A Portland lawmaker has proposed a bill that would give five York County families who protested conditions at a Lyman day care permission to sue the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Democratic Rep. Richard Farnsworth, former chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said the families were wronged and should have the opportunity to prove their case in court.

“It puts the state on notice that they have (an) obligation to its citizens, that there is a level of assurance that parents can expect a certain level of quality and safety at the child cares,” Farnsworth said.

The state has broad immunity from lawsuits – and laws protecting the state from litigation for employees carrying out their jobs – but in rare cases the Legislature will make it easier to sue by waiving that immunity.

The bill explicitly says the families “are authorized to bring a civil action against the Department of Health and Human Services for damages claimed to have been suffered.”

Farnsworth said the families, in a potential future lawsuit, could point to the state’s inaction after inspections uncovered abuse at Sunshine Child Care and Preschool in Lyman.

The state’s day care licensing division took no action for more than a year against Sunshine despite concluding in 2012 that abuse of children had occurred, according to state records provided to the Press Herald in 2014. The abuse included force-feeding milk, slamming a child to the ground and “abusive, humiliating and intimidating” behavior by Sunshine co-owner Cheryl Dubois toward the children, according to state documents.

When the state acted – in August 2013 – it granted Sunshine a conditional license, allowing it to operate on the equivalent of a probation. The center closed on its own in January 2014 after the allegations surfaced in the news media and parents began pulling their children from the program.

In response to the Lyman case, the state has since instituted a number of reforms, including hiring more inspectors, reducing bureaucratic bottlenecks and putting inspection reports online.

With Sunshine, inspectors concluded abuse occurred in 2012, but a supervisor sat on licensing actions, state documents show.

That supervisor has since been reassigned, and now a committee reviews inspection reports, to prevent one bureaucrat from holding up actions against day cares that violate health and safety rules.

The parents who would be affected by the Legislature waiving state immunity include York County residents Sara Bachelder, Danielle and Christopher Pouliot, Hannah and Brett Williams, Tonya Later and Albert Sico III, and Michelle Tapley.

Bachelder told the Press Herald on Monday that she couldn’t comment on a lawsuit, but that she was pleased with the reforms, especially the hiring of more inspectors and making the reports available online. Bachelder said in past years, it was extremely difficult to obtain information from the state about inspections.

“All of these positive changes were made as a result of a very unfortunate situation,” said Bachelder, who is suing Cheryl and Daniel Dubois, the former owners of the day care. “Sometimes, that’s what it takes.”

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