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Most D.C. Day-Care Centers Have Expired Licenses


Humpty Dumpty center of Northwest Washington, a large provider of child care for the poor, has not had a valid license since spring.
By Juana Arias, The Washington Post

By Katherine Boo
Post Staff Writer
Oct. 6, 1997;
Page A01

Fourth in a series of occasional articles

Slip into an alley off New Hampshire Avenue NW. Turn at the dirt lot -- the one with the swing set without swings. Climb the broken stairs, pass the screenless open window high above concrete. Survey the rooms stocked with scores of toddlers and infants, who are here at public expense while their parents try to find work and get off welfare.

Follow these directions and check on these children, and you will do what the city inspectors responsible for their safety haven't done in years, according to D.C. records.

The private Humpty Dumpty infant center is one of 180 Washington day-care centers -- more than half of all city facilities -- operating with an expired license. D.C. officials say most renewals have been held up because of serious health and safety problems. Overcrowding, infestation by roaches and rats, inadequate adult supervision, filthy cots and kitchens: All are part of the landscape of D.C. day care as seen in city records and visits to facilities by The Washington Post.

Municipal efforts to protect children in day-care centers have ranged from haphazard to nonexistent. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) routinely fails to visit each center once a year, as required by law. The agency has only five inspectors -- half the number of three years ago -- to fulfill its public charge of monitoring 350 centers and hundreds of home day-care operations. Their supervisor has been absent on a workers' compensation leave since mid-1996.

Despite obvious shortcomings at many centers, it is virtually impossible in the District to lose a day-care license -- or even a day of business. In 1995 and 1996, Maryland revoked 174 day-care licenses and ordered 74 emergency suspensions of centers that failed to meet standards. In the District during that period, not a single license was suspended and only one was revoked -- that of a center long closed, according to DCRA.

District day care is not an equal-opportunity hazard. Records indicate the majority of centers with lapsed licenses are in the District's poorer neighborhoods. Many are subsidized by taxpayer dollars, despite city regulations barring public funds for child-care facilities without a "current license."

Humpty Dumpty, for example, is one of the city's largest providers of taxpayer-subsidized child care for the poor. City records show its owner collects more than $850,000 annually to care for 200 children, although the infant center and its sister nursery school have not had valid licenses since spring.

The infant center has not been inspected since May 1995, shortly after a worried inspector warned, "Facility must be closely monitored." At the nursery school, a hardscrabble playground described by monitors over the years as "unsafe" or "potentially life threatening" remains unrenovated.

Such deficiencies cloud the local forecast for welfare reform, which in coming months will channel another 4,000 District children -- and millions of tax dollars -- into already overextended subsidized day-care establishments. Day care is widely considered a linchpin of successful reform: The new law gives states and the District $600 million a year to provide child care for those being pushed off the dole.

"You cannot ask somebody on welfare to go to work if they're going to neglect their children in doing it," President Clinton declared in signing the welfare reform bill last year. Yet some District parents may be doing just that.

Records indicate some centers have had their licenses delayed by bureaucratic backlog, not quality issues. But Ellen Yung-Fatah, who oversees DCRA's day-care inspectors, attributed the majority of lapsed licenses to "serious" and "systemic" deficiencies, from overcrowding to fire-safety problems, many of which have persisted for years. "Since we discovered the problems," she said, "we've been trying to work with owners to fix them without closing centers and creating mass upheaval."

The Department of Human Services (DHS) is responsible for selecting the centers that get public money for poor children, then adding an extra layer of monitoring to make sure the children are safe. Children's advocates once hailed D.C.'s subsidized day-care program as a model. But DHS has only three monitors, down from eight in 1990; they spend most of their time on contracting paperwork, according to DHS officials, who acknowledge they have not removed a day-care center from the program for years.

For more than a decade, the city government has not increased what it pays subsidized day-care centers. For instance, the District pays $21.10 a day per infant -- less than half the metropolitan average. Many centers refuse to take "DHS kids." Staff salaries at those that do accept the children often run as low as $12,000 a year. The result is "economically segregated child care," said Bobbi Blok, head of the Washington Child Development Council. "It's a tale of two cities."

Barbara Kamara, who runs DHS's day-care program, said, "I don't want any of our children in places with roaches and rats. We need to hold people to a higher standard." But memos indicate that the continued flow of tax dollars into centers with lapsed licenses and known problems is now conscious city policy, as DHS and DCRA officials struggle to find thousands of new day-care slots for welfare reform children.

The city has made no effort to notify thousands of parents of the expired licenses or deficiencies at the centers where they leave their children.

"This is nuts," said Liz Siegel, executive director of DC Action for Children. "If the government isn't in there protecting the children, poor parents are in a Catch-22. They're ordered to go to work. But to go to work, they have to risk sending their children to an unsafe day-care center. As a parent, I wouldn't want to make that choice."

Few Options for Poor Parents

In May, a week after his third birthday, Tyrone Temoney was found dazed in a pool of Pine Sol in a laundry room at Christian Tabernacle of God day-care center in Shaw. Center workers rushed him to Children's Hospital, but his mother, Michelle Temoney, says she wasn't notified for four hours. The Christian Tabernacle center's director declined to discuss the case or answer other questions about her operation.

The children of the affluent are not as dependent as the poor on city overseers to protect their children while in day care: If they find roaches or filth or hazardous jungle gyms, they typically have other options -- including the many city centers that adhere to private accreditation standards far exceeding regulatory minimums. But even the keenest-eyed poor parent faces a more limited array of day-care choices. When 29-year-old Michelle Temoney entrusted Tyrone to Christian Tabernacle, she says she was taking what she could get.

When Temoney was certified to receive a day-care subsidy, she got a list of centers approved by DHS to accept poor children. Because her oldest child had gone to Humpty Dumpty -- "until my husband came there for the first time, smelled the urine and said, `Oh no, take him out' " -- she crossed that one off. But other places Temoney called had a waiting list. Christian Tabernacle didn't. "I was just so relieved I had a place to put him," she remembers.

The day Temoney raced to Children's Hospital to console her son was the last day Tyrone went to Christian Tabernacle. "He said afterward that someone had locked him in the laundry room," his mother said. "What is a child doing in the laundry room in the first place?"

Following the incident, Christian Tabernacle received a $1,500 fine for leaving chemicals within reach of children, among other violations. Last month that fine was reduced to $515 when an administrative report concluded that the incident was a freak accident in what an inspector called "one of the best [day-care facilities] in the District of Columbia." The report acknowledged that it remained a "big mystery" how the tiny boy got past the laundry room's "very heavy door." The U.S. Attorney's Office says it is investigating. Citing the investigation, Temoney's lawyer declined to provide the boy's medical file.

DHS recently recertified Christian Tabernacle to provide another year of subsidized care -- shortly before a DCRA inspection found insufficient educational materials, toys and play equipment, peeling paint, and an unqualified teacher there.

Commonplace day-care infractions rarely attract the inquiry of prosecutors, but widely accepted research now suggests that an unstimulating environment impedes a child's brain development. And while day care, good or bad, may have only a limited effect on children from stable family backgrounds with other advantages, studies indicate the impact on low-income children can be significant.

More than 15,000 children are in D.C. day-care centers and homes that require a license. (Some centers and homes that take in a very small number of children do not require licenses. It is unknown how many children are in illegal homes beyond even cursory city scrutiny.) D.C.'s rules for the caretakers of those children include specifications for such things as jungle gyms, toilet seats, and the number and credentialing of staff required to supervise various age groups. When centers are found in violation of those rules, they are given a short period of time to rectify them.

There are things the regulations, passed in 1974, can't measure -- inspired, loving teachers, for example. There are things other states insist upon that D.C. regulations don't require -- such as criminal checks to keep felons from working in centers. But DCRA rules were designed to ensure minimum standards.

Even so, DHS routinely recertifies centers with lapsed licenses and outstanding violations to receive city money.

The agency continues to subsidize poor children at the I Care center in Northeast, where the license expired a year and a half ago and where records indicate repeated failure to maintain enough adult supervision, get rid of rats and eliminate a certain "odor musty smell." One hundred and fifty subsidized "DHS kids" continue to go to City Wide Learning Center, which, city records show, collected more than $680,000 last year; its license expired in February and the center has been repeatedly cited for staffing shortages, chipped paint and other deficiencies. Public funds -- and children -- also continue to go to Kiddies Kollege, where records show the license expired a year ago and DCRA reports chronicle peeling paint, substandard learning supplies and unqualified staff.

I Care's director did not return phone calls. Kiddies Kollege's director declined to comment. City Wide's director said "the things we were supposed to fix have been done" and the center is working on renewing its license.

DHS's Kamara said her agency has stopped placing new children in several of the most troubled city centers, but has not removed the children already in them.

DHS documents indicate the agency doesn't consider Humpty Dumpty one of those troubled centers. City funds and children keep flowing there despite years of quality issues. In 1993, an inspector raised flags about the center's crowded infant facility, emphasizing that the center required "a lot of monitoring" and "a lot of training . . . to assist with environment enhancement and curriculum."

A year later, as Humpty Dumpty's license and DHS contracts were renewed, the same inspector was still fretting: "It must be noted that it meets the absolute minimal requirements for licensure. After additional visits it may be recommended that this center not be allowed to house so many infants. It is also my opinion that adequate supervision is not taking place on the part of the director."

In March 1995, inspectors found children sleeping in a hallway, chipped paint, exposed outlets and unlabeled cribs, according to records. Two months later they returned to find many violations uncorrected. They never inspected again.

Humpty Dumpty's nursery school received more frequent visits, and inspired more inspector anxiety about unqualified teachers, inadequate toys and peeling paint. This March, the inspector issued a "cease and desist" demand that the hazardous playground be closed immediately. He failed to visit again for six months; when he returned late last month, he found the playground violations uncorrected.

DCRA records indicate not a single fine has been levied against Humpty Dumpty in the last six years. In the same period, DHS has given the centers several million dollars.

"They told me I was one of their best centers," owner Katherine Sockwell said. "It's only now that they're changing the rules. They're saying I can't do things I've been doing for 20 years, and that makes me hit the ceiling."

Sockwell said she always corrects problems as soon as they are found, and that her lapsed license was the fault of unfair regulations and an inconsistent bureaucracy. But after discussion with DCRA following inquiries by The Post, Sockwell has agreed to make some changes to her operation: to screen the open window, to find a new playground.

"But I'd say the deficiencies are their fault, not mine, and you can put that in the paper," Sockwell added.

Magic on a Shoestring
Big Mama's day care center sits across from a sewage plant in Southwest Washington. On the symbolic map of District day care, it looms as an indication that some subsidized day-care providers are committed to quality whether inspectors demand it or not. The center's ceiling is grody, the kitchen stove is charred. But there is beauty at Big Mama's. On a recent morning a reporter walked in on children singing "Lundi! Mardi! Mercredi! Jeudi! Vendredi! Samedi! Dimanche!"

In a yellow playroom, 5-year-olds led by a teacher from Togo whip through les jours de la semaine. Some of the children have just been removed from their families and placed in foster care; some belong to women furious about being forced to go to work. There are extreme dramas in their lives. There is little drama in Big Mama's inspection reports. Instead of skimping on staff, owner Debbie Hall funds extra training for employees. She stocks her center with hundreds of books and a turtle named Mr. Alfred.

"I know people feel they can't meet the regulations because of the lack of money," Hall said. "But it can be done. If it's in the regulations we do it. If inspectors find deficiencies we fix them. Sometimes we feel like magicians over here, making something out of nothing, but we survive."

Hall has received calls lately from aspiring day-care providers, asking for advice. "What with welfare reform, they've heard you can make some money," she said.

Across the city, entrepreneurs are opening new day-care centers or expanding existing ones, leafletting subway stops in search of poor women and their government subsidies. Meanwhile DCRA inspectors don't have pens to write with or batteries for the flashlights they need for site visits. And they've already got their hands full with veteran providers like Ernest McClellan, who runs Children's Hut, a large center on Kennedy Street NW.

McClellan's handbook for parents says Children's Hut's goal is to enhance the moral and mental character of children through education and role-modeling by his staff. Last fall a DHS inspector found 2-year-olds playing with roaches. Carpets were fouled with mouse droppings. A subsequent investigation found that despite the balanced menus McClellan's staff produced to show parents and regulators, children were being inadequately fed.

While his staff lists claimed employees qualified to meet city licensing requirements, one highly credentialed "teacher" never worked at the center, two others had been fired, and two others had expired credentials, the investigation found. DCRA noted that McClellan was also running an Amway business from the center.

In November DCRA fined McClellan $100. "It was determined that it would be in the best interest of the children for the administration to work with the director instead of closing the center, thus displacing all children permanently," wrote a city official at the time.

Eight months later, in July, DCRA substantiated a parent's complaint that one of McClellan's teachers punished children by putting them in a closet. It also found continued understaffing and overcrowding, and, again, inadequate meals for children. At about the same time, a parent called DCRA to report a rat in the infant area and roaches on the changing tables.

This time, citing "imminently dangerous conditions," DCRA issued a larger fine, which DCRA records say has yet to be paid. McClellan did not return repeated phone calls. DHS, whose own monitoring reports over the last two years complain of Children's Hut's poor conditions and inaccuracies in its reports and invoices to the city, continues to use the center to care for poor children.

Tenacity Pays Off
A little-noted clause in the federal welfare reform law says states cannot make women comply with work requirements if they can't find adequate day care for their preschoolers. With more than half of the District's centers operating without valid licenses, few parents can be certain how adequate their children's day care is.

JaRonn Latney does feel certain now. The 22-year-old Dunbar graduate and single parent works hard at being a mother, making sure her 3-year-old son's natural brightness isn't stifled by poverty. But ensuring Corey's future has involved tenacity not every parent can muster.

When in job training, Latney took the boy to Christian Tabernacle, the only center near her school where she could find a slot. She says she hated the lack of books, the stressed-out staff. She hated that the bathrooms had no soap. But mostly she hated the way her son winced when they rode a Metro bus near the center. "Don't take me there, mommy," he told her.

Latney had little faith in finding a better subsidized center: "The good ones you can't get into, the bad ones you don't want to get into." She decided she had to find another way. Ditching her subsidy, she approached local philanthropies; she got everyone she could think of to write a letter attesting to the specialness of her child. Then, finally, Latney scored: The Black Student Fund gave her a scholarship to a preschool in Cleveland Park.

"You should see it," she says. "A big house turned into a school, with a garden and flowers, a huge playground! When you walk into the classroom the teachers aren't talking to each other about what they did last night. They are talking to the kids, holding conversations. They're teaching Corey to paint, taking him to the library. And every day he comes home saying `Mommy, listen! This is what we did in school.' "

"You know what I wish?" Latney says, taking a breath. "I wish everyone had what I have."

Michelle Temoney wishes that too.

After the Pine Sol incident, Temoney says, "My son didn't want to go back to day care. And I thought, forget it, I give up. My son matters more than a job. So now here I am, back on welfare."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post

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