The Old Town-Orono YMCA is seen Wednesday. State documents reveal that within the last year, there was a serious set of child safety violations at the child care center. Credit: Andrew Catalina | Maine Public

The state’s Department of Health and Human Services is trying to improve transparency about enforcement actions it takes to ensure the safety and welfare of children attending licensed child care facilities in Maine, but it has fallen short of its own goals in at least one case, while advocates say it is still too difficult for parents to research a facility’s quality and history.

State documents reveal that, within the past year, there was a serious set of child safety violations at the Old Town-Orono YMCA child care center.

They have since been corrected, but over the course of multiple inspections in late 2018 and early this year, a state inspector documented instances of staff pulling infants by their arms, kicking and slapping children, pressing them down to make them sleep, eating their lunches, feeding them restricted food and swearing at them.

The reports do not make it clear whether more than one staffer was responsible for the rough handling, and the state did not comment about those details. The inspector’s report does say five staffers failed to immediately report the abuse to authorities, as required.

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The facility’s full license was revoked and replaced by a conditional license that required all the violations to be corrected within two weeks. Two months later, the Y and the state signed a consent agreement detailing the requirements, and its full two-year license was restored.

The consent agreement can be found on the state website. But until Maine Public made a freedom of access request, the site did not include any details of the actual violations that occurred.

After being questioned about the case, a state spokeswoman said that the inspector’s reports should in fact have been posted on the website. They have since been made available here.

In an email, Old Town-Orono YMCA Executive Director Debra Boyd wrote that the organization was unable to comment, but that the center has a 20-year history of compliance.

DHHS said Thursday afternoon that the abuse came to its attention through “a self-report” from the YMCA’s director about child abuse and neglect concerns by a former employee whom the program had immediately fired. The department then launched an investigation that it finished in January 2019 with findings of child abuse and rule violations. Those findings led to the conditional license.

The state agency and the Old Town-Orono YMCA entered into the consent agreement soon after “as the program had responded swiftly in reporting the concerns, terminating the employee, and meeting the conditions of the Department,” DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said.

“Old Town-Orono YMCA has operated in substantial compliance with regulations for two decades, with three prior complaint investigations since 2011 resulting in minor infractions that required no action be taken on the license,” Farwell said.

In most cases of significant violations, going back five years, the state does appear to have properly posted most records. But some serious allegations were only revealed through the freedom of access request.

That’s because some records for facilities that have had their licenses voided — or that have gone under new ownership following a revocation — are removed from the website. In Lewiston last year, the state voided the license for one child care center in response to numerous violations that ranged from poor care to failing to report that one of the directors had been convicted of unlawfully touching a minor.

The center is now under new ownership and management, so the public can see on the state website that the new owners have a provisional license. But the reports on violations by the previous owners are not on the website, because that business does not exist anymore.

There are other instances in which a license was voided and the records removed from the website because the facility went under new ownership. The state said that when a new owner takes over a deficient facility, it receives a heightened level of scrutiny as it gets up and running.

State officials said parents are welcome to contact inspectors if they have questions about any facility they find on the website. Inspectors’ contact information is included on the website.

There are some 1,800 licensed child care programs in the state, which serve more than 40,000 children. Every one of them gets an unannounced inspection at least once a year, and can expect more frequent monitoring when any deficiencies are found.

In the 2018 fiscal year, state statistics show there were no deaths at Maine child care facilities, seven serious injuries and three cases of child abuse.

“Here in Maine, child care is very safe. There aren’t a lot of serious injuries, there aren’t a lot of deaths and it’s a fact,” said Janet Whitten, the state’s chief compliance officer. “If we impose a licensing action — a conditional license or issue a letter of deficiency — the intent is to try to bring the provider back into compliance as soon as possible.”

One goal of the website is to allow parents to search for providers by location or ZIP code and click through to see licenses and other documents. And for participating facilities, parents can find a numerical score that rates their quality based on national standards.

Still, some children’s advocates faulted the state’s website for unwieldiness, and said it’s still too hard for parents to thoroughly research a facility’s quality and history. Rita Furlow, a senior policy analyst at the Maine Children’s Alliance, said that the state has a long way to go to comply with the federal government’s most recent regulations.

“I still don’t think Maine is anywhere close to where the feds were hoping states would be, in terms of being able to have parents get information about what child care is available to them, easily understand the licensing issues, understand the quality issues,” she said.

Furlow noted that to avoid losing some federal child care block grant funding, the state will have to complete a number of updates to its rules by this fall, including requiring fingerprint background checks for child care workers.

Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services within DHHS, said he is working to make sure all the rules, including the fingerprint requirements, are updated on time.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.