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Complaints Prompt Review of DHHS Day Care Licensing Division
02/28/2014   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

The Legislature's Government Oversight Committee today also voted to launch a review of the Department of Health and Human Services' day care licensing division. The move comes after former DHHS social workers gave lawmakers documents that revealed the department's failure to follow through on investigations of child care providers that were not meeting standards. As Patty Wight reports, there are concerns about procedures - and the culture - within the department.

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Democratic Sen. Margaret Craven is one of the lawmakers who was approached by former DHHS social workers who raised concerns about the department's oversight of day care facilities. And she says she's deeply upset about what she's learned.

"One little kid had two fingers broken," Craven said. "And so the whole debate was, was it the speech therapist that broke the fingers, or was it the day care provider that broke the fingers? It wasn't like the kid got caught in the door, or another kid caught him with a toy or anything."

Day cares are licensed every two years in Maine, and DHHS staffers are supposed to visit at least once during that period to ensure they're meeting requirements. If any issues are identified, more visits are supposed to follow. In a national ranking by the advocacy group Child Care Aware of America, Maine is in the bottom 10 states for child care requirements and oversight.

After a preliminary review by the state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability - or OPEGA - analyst Wendy Cherubini also identified concerns about DHHS policies and procedures for day care facilities.

"The length of time between a complaint, the investigation, and then any action being taken with the provider, is one of the issues that's been raised - is that there's a long time between any action - if any is taken," Cherubini said. "There are some situations where it doesn't appear action was taken."

Recently, some have questioned the state's oversight of Sunshine Child Care in Lyman. After allegations of physical abuse, DHHS conducted investigations of the center in 2012 and 2013. The department identified issues, but gave a conditional license to the center.

Sunshine Child Care ultimately closed in January after parents withdrew their children. OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft says DHHS officials informed her that they're in the process of hiring about a dozen additional staff to perform inspections.

"Having said that, some of the things that we have questions around from what we've looked at so far, I don't think that just adding additional staff to it is all of the answer," Ashcroft said.

That's because there are also potential issues with the overall culture and expectations at DHHS, which Republican Sen.David Burns finds troubling. "I've been hearing about mid-level management people that are essentially stiffling the process from front line workers," he said.

The former DHHS social workers that approached lawmakers say they were dismissed from their jobs due to their concerns about the department. DHHS culture is already on OPEGA's radar, which is planning to complete a review this year. So the Government Oversight Committee voted whether to launch a separate review into the department's policies and procedures for licensing day cares.

And in a matter of four seconds, chair Emily Cain declared: "It's unanimous."

OPEGA says it will fast-track the review. In a written response, Ken Albert of the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services within DHHS said he looks forward to providing OPEGA information regarding the many changes within the department over the last two years, and additional improvements that are on the horizon resulting from an internal review conducted related to recent events.


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