Parents whose children attended a shuttered day care center in York County want to sue the state for not doing enough to protect their children from abuse, including taunts, forced-feeding and physical restraints.

Five complaints were filed against the Department of Health and Human Services in York County Superior Court on Aug. 12 by parents of children who attended Sunshine Child Care and Preschool in Lyman.

Those cases are on hold, however, pending legislative approval.

The state has broad immunity from lawsuits under the Maine Tort Claims Act, but plaintiffs can seek permission from the Legislature to have that immunity waived in specific cases.

Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, agreed to sponsor a resolve that would authorize the parents to sue the state for damages, but that measure was carried over into the next legislative session, which begins in January.

The parents seeking permission to sue the state are: Sara Bachelder, Danielle and Christopher Pouliot, Hannah and Brett Williams, Tonya Later and Albert Sico III, and Michelle Tapley.

Those parents already sued the day care center’s former owners, Cheryl and Daniel Dubois, in May 2014. That case was recently settled, and the terms are confidential. Now the families want to pursue legal action against the state.

“The primary reason is that they want to ensure that things are changed at the state level to make sure things like this don’t happen to other families,” said Brian Champion, a Kennebunk attorney representing the plaintiffs. “But these families are still dealing with effects of some of the things that happened and believe additional damages could be warranted.”

LITANY OF COMPLAINTS

An investigation by the Portland Press Herald found that the center was listed as a state-approved facility on a website maintained by DHHS even after the abuse allegations had been reported to the agency. The investigation unearthed numerous errors on the website, and former inspectors for the agency described a history of lax oversight.

The disclosures prompted an inquiry by the Legislature, which led DHHS to hire additional staff in its licensing unit, revise its policies, retool the day care website and replace the manager who oversaw day care regulation.

Each of the parents who filed a lawsuit Aug. 12 had enrolled children in Sunshine Child Care, and each of those children was named in a state investigation in early 2014 that ultimately led to the center’s closure.

According to court documents, among the findings of that investigation, which was aided in part by testimony from former day care employees, were:

• A boy was forced to sit in a chair while other children played, was slammed to the ground on at least one occasion and was force-fed food.

• Cheryl Dubois routinely called a young girl “fat and disgusting,” said she should be put on a diet and ordered her to run around the playground without rest.

• A boy suffered a bruise and cut on his chin after Dubois pulled his chair out from under him during lunch, causing him to hit his chin on the table. That same boy was force-fed milk.

• An infant who had been crying was wrapped in a blanket so tightly by Dubois that his eyes became bloodshot.

STATE ACTION DELAYED

Some complaints were made to the state in 2011, but the day care licensing division at DHHS took no action against Sunshine for more than a year, despite concluding in 2012 that abuse of children had occurred, according to state records.

When the state did finally act, it granted Sunshine a conditional license until it corrected a number of deficiencies, but parents were not notified.

The pending lawsuits against the state accuse DHHS employees of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress for not acting more quickly after complaints were lodged and for not notifying parents about ongoing investigations. The plaintiffs seek unspecified damages.

In August 2014, federal auditors criticized the state’s oversight of day care centers and home-based child care after discovering a number of unsafe practices, including expired food and drugs, hazardous chemicals within reach of children, dangerous equipment on playgrounds and failure to perform required criminal background checks on employees. The Sunshine facility was among the centers cited.

State officials have since acknowledged that Maine fell short in the Sunshine case, but DHHS spokesman David Sorensen declined to comment Friday on any pending litigation.

He did note, however, that since the reports became public, the department has implemented a number of reforms that include hiring more inspectors and posting inspection reports online.

Sorensen said the department’s licensing office has increased the number of caseworkers from 13 to 25 in the past year and a half, and reduced their caseloads from 162 to about 80 per person.

Sorensen also said the office now is sending letters to parents when there’s a case of abuse or neglect at their child care center, telling them about any investigation and what they can expect from it.

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