Early Trails Preschool and Daycare Center on Forsyth Road smelled of cigarette smoke. Roaches crawled into boxes of baby wipes and the babies’ diaper bags — and even went home in their diapers. Employees reported finding dead roaches in the freezer each morning. The walls had holes and recurring mold, doors wouldn’t close, sections of wall and floor buckled, and equipment was “heavily coated” in dust and dirt.
State records show all these violations and more in recent years at the north Macon day care, including some that resulted in serious injury to children. In 2008, a 2-year-old suffered a concussion when a TV fell off an unstable shelf onto her head. The center staff called the child’s parents, but not 911, according to the state’s investigation report.
The previous year, a 3-year-old had to have stitches after another child ran over her on a tricycle with rusted, jagged metal jutting from its pedals — while a teacher watched and failed to intervene until it had happened repeatedly, the state found.
Georgia has rules forbidding many of the conditions that existed at Early Trails, where state day-care consultants documented 150 rule violations between 2007 and the end of 2009. Although Early Trails no longer exists, that’s not because state regulators closed it. The business was purchased by a new owner, and its name changed early this year.
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And Early Trails, with many customers from the Zebulon Road area, is one of many day cares that operated for years as the state found scores of violations.
An analysis of state records showed at least 21 day-care centers in Bibb and Houston counties that had 50 or more violations in the past three years.
Since 2007, the state has revoked the licenses of 27 Georgia day cares, mostly small, home-based ones. Seven revocations followed a child’s death.
Premium day care is hard to find anywhere in Georgia. A University of North Carolina study commissioned by the state revealed this spring that just 5 percent of early child care settings in Georgia are high quality, and two-thirds of infant and toddler care is low quality, with “environments that are inadequate for their health and safety.”
In 2009, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, which ranks states’ day-care standards and oversight, ranked Georgia 49th (out of 52, including the Department of Defense and Washington, D.C.).
Thousands of children and families are affected. Sixty-four percent of Georgia families use early childhood care, according to the Georgia Department of Early Childhood and Learning, also called Bright from the Start.
Joy Moten-Thomas’ youngest son finished his day care years last fall. “I hate day care,” she said. “The quality of day cares in the Middle Georgia area are going downhill fast.”
Moten-Thomas, a single mom who lives in Macon but works in Fort Valley, said her youngest son attended a church day care with little instruction or discipline. She moved her oldest son, now 11, among day cares after realizing that her initial choice, which came recommended by friends, had many state violations.
“When I found out how many deficiencies they had on their inspections, I was shocked,” she said. “As a brand new parent, it petrified me.”
Georgia has more than 8,000 licensed day cares, including about 3,120 day-care centers. The majority of Georgia children attend a center. Many parents say they see safety in numbers.
“A lot of parents think if a program is licensed, there’s a certain level of quality inherent in that,” said Julie Phillips, director of the Child Care Resource and Referral Agency of Central Georgia office in Macon. “There are some quality standards built into state regulations, but they are very minimal.”
Georgia day-care rules, some of which are among the most permissive in the Southeast, are frequently broken. A Telegraph analysis of about a thousand state records for Bibb and Houston county day-care centers showed multiple violations at almost all of them, although they varied in severity.
Kids on the curb
An analysis of state records showed 2,840 cases in which a state day-care standard was not met or was “partially met” at Bibb County day-care centers, and 758 at Houston County centers, between 2007 and March 2010. Some of the violations were serious.
For example, a 2007 state investigation found that at First Choice Day Care center in Dry Branch, a worker dropped off a 3- and 4-year-old at the street in front of their apartment when no one was there. The report states that the children were found crying on the curb by their guardian when she returned home shortly afterward.
D. Marie Peterson of Missouri, the owner of First Choice, said she investigated the case herself and understood that the children were met by an adult who was not the parent.
State inspections have found repeated problems at First Choice, from live roaches in the kitchen to broken lights in the bathroom. Once a state inspector found a child sleeping on the floor of the bathroom.
Peterson said she pays exterminators, but roaches come in from the woods. She called many of the other violations “picky” and said the state should give her credit for re-investing her profits in the center and piloting Georgia pre-kindergarten.
“I understand they’re saying: ‘Let’s raise the bar,’ said Peterson, who moved away from Macon with her husband to care for aging parents. “I had people with master’s degrees, business degrees, child development associates. But that was not good enough for these people.”
First Choice is one of 24 day cares in Bibb and Houston counties now receiving “intensive care” training and assistance from the state. So is Beloved Day Care Center on Roundfield Road in Macon.
In 2008, the state investigated an incident there in which a 2-year-old walked off the playground, through the building and down the street. He was found “walking home” by a neighbor and returned to the center by a Macon police detective, state records indicate.
But Beloved is an example of a day care that seems to be improving after years of problems with unstable cribs, missing student records, children being confined for extended periods in swings or high chairs, and lack of required teacher training.
Beloved was cited for 61 violations in 2008, but only 17 last year.
Beloved officials did not return repeated phone calls.
Among other day cares that have made progress are the Children’s Friend on Sheraton Drive, which dropped from 46 violations in 2007 to just six in 2009, and Child Care Network on Walden Road in Macon, which had 65 violations in 2008 and just seven in 2009, an analysis of state records found.
Discipline, supervision, baby care
Discipline poses a problem at some day cares. At Cherished Children on Myrtle Street in Warner Robins, a staff member bit a 1-year-old child on the arm to teach him a lesson after the child bit a classmate, a 2008 state investigation concluded. Early this year, a teacher whipped her own child with a belt in a storage closet adjacent to a room where 16 2-year-olds could overhear, according to state records.
Debbie Stephens, executive director of Cherished Children, said the teacher involved in the biting incident was arrested and later fired, and the teacher who whipped her child at the center was reprimanded and retrained. She said the biting incident happened because the teacher knew the family and had seen the parents do it.
The Children’s Sesame on Walnut Creek Road has been cited for violent behavior and inappropriate discipline. State consultants determined that staff members have pinched, dragged and insulted children in care, and adult staff members had a physical and verbal fight in front of children in 2007. (Several staff members involved in those incidents were fired.)
Children quoted their teacher as saying, “I don’t care what y’all do or who y’all tell — you can tell the president and you can tell Jesus Christ. I ain’t afraid.”
Through the center’s director, Children’s Sesame owner Ed Harris declined to comment for this story.
An analysis of Bibb and Houston violations showed it’s not unusual for day cares to skimp on the required ratio of adults to children. Some day cares, like Children’s Friend on Sheraton Drive, had repeat violations.
At Children’s Sesame on Riverside Drive, in 2009 a state inspector observed about 15 children playing on the playground without adults, while other children entered the building or played in a classroom alone.
At the Childcare Network on Walden Road in Macon, a 2008 complaint investigation by the state concluded that in the late afternoon, occasionally only one teacher supervised as many as 20 children ranging from infants to school age. (The director’s response indicated that a staff member was fired for one such incident.)
Infants, in particular, are supposed to receive more attention: Georgia allows no more than six to be supervised by a single adult.
Baby care is examined closely in monitoring visits. Bottles must be refrigerated and labeled with the baby’s name, which prevents breast milk from being fed to the wrong infant, or a lactose-intolerant child being sickened by the wrong formula. Children’s Friend on Sheraton Drive repeatedly allowed unlabeled baby bottles, and in 2007, the Care-A-Lot Learning Center on Bloomfield Road in Macon allowed the bottles to be stored in diaper bags, state monitoring reports show.
Beloved, Children’s Friend on Sheraton Drive and Care-A-Lot all were caught putting babies to sleep on their stomachs, which increases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Playgrounds and transportation
By far the most common violations in Bibb and Houston county day cares had to do with playgrounds, followed by safe environments and buildings; transportation of children; and toys and equipment. For example, several day cares lacked any toys or equipment for school-age children they cared for.
Most day cares were cited for at least a few problems that might seem minor, like a loose wire on a playground fence or a bottle of hand sanitizer left within a toddler’s reach.
“The regulations are stringent,” said Tony Foskey, vice president of the Children’s Friend day care chain based in Warner Robins. “Things that may be commonplace on a school playground or in your home can cause us to make that list” of centers with many violations.
Transportation violations often involved poor record keeping, but centers like Beloved and First Choice have had multiple problems with broken seat belt buckles and a lack of car seats. (Peterson said she paid $10,000 to outfit a new bus with seat belts and bought car seats for every child at First Choice.)
State regulators found that Children’s Sesame on Walnut Creek Road was transporting all children between the ages of 3 and 6 without car seats and, according to its own paperwork, sometimes carrying 20 to 25 children in a van with a 14-person capacity.
Kay Hellwig, assistant commissioner for child care services at Bright from the Start, said the state occasionally restricts which services a day care can offer as a result of these violations. For example, the state could suspend a center’s ability to drive children or care for babies, she said.
How centers respond
Foskey said Children’s Friend increases supervision for its centers with more violations.
“We absolutely understand the rules and rationale behind the regulations,” he said. “Where we have shortfalls, we attempt to correct them as fast as we possibly can.”
But Peterson said she feels the state is “grossly unfair” in its enforcement. She said she may close First Choice soon because she believes the state is trying to shut down day cares owned by blacks, particularly black women.
Peterson, who said First Choice employs and serves mostly black children, said of state inspectors: “They’re not ‘consultants.’ They are messrakers and muckrakers, and I question whether they really have the best interests of children at heart.”
She said the state shouldn’t be in the business of inspecting day-care centers. “Owners should be, because they’re the ones that really understand early child care,” she said.
Foskey noted that many types of child care don’t have to follow Georgia’s rules at all. People can accept money to care for up to three children in their homes without a license. Popular “mother’s morning out” programs that keep children for four or fewer hours are unregulated.
“Our committee screamed at the state about mothers’ morning out not being regulated,” said Cyndey Busbee, who chaired the early childhood committee of Education First in Bibb County. The state acknowledged the need for it but did nothing, she said.
“We’re finding all these bad things at licensed centers,” she said. “I can only imagine what’s happening at these.”
The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends requiring a license for any program that cares for 10 or more children.
Trying to turn around a center
Early Trails, the day-care center in Bibb County with the most violations, was owned by Venkat Sanjeev of Macon until early this year. He still owns the building, but the business was purchased by Dionne Fuller, who hired new employees and renamed the center Children’s Retreat.
Fuller said she has spent several thousand dollars updating the buildings, and Sanjeev has made repairs.
In the years before Fuller took over, the day-care buildings and basic utilities suffered. State regulators found that the day care had stayed open for days without water and for months in the summer with a sewage leak in a wall and under a building. The state day-care consultant noted the stench on repeated visits.
In 2008, the consultant noted, “Serious and continuous rule violations still found to exist. No corrections to previous citations observed by consultant this date, despite filed plan indicating that repairs have been made.”
Stacey Moore, the public relations director for Bright from the Start, said Early Trails received two civil penalties from the state in 2008, of $299 and $499, for repeated noncompliance and for injury to a child.
State monitoring reports quote a former center director as saying that the former owner, Sanjeev, told her not to close when there was no water and told her not to hire anyone to fix the sewage leak because he wanted to handle it himself. Despite repeated citations for a vast roach infestation, the director said Sanjeev also had discontinued pest control.
Sanjeev declined to comment directly, but he asked a business associate, George McGinty, to speak on his behalf. McGinty said Sanjeev expected day-care directors to take care of day-to-day operations, and some of them didn’t do a good job.
“Bad managers have complained and lost momentum,” he wrote in a letter about the issue.
McGinty said he was not familiar with the sewage problem, but its timing during the summer of 2008 coincided with extensive tornado damage to Sanjeev’s hotel and office.
“In the middle of that, one of those buildings (at the day care) might’ve needed something, but he had other things claiming his attention,” McGinty said. “But I don’t think you ought to care (about the sewage problem) if nobody got sick.”
McGinty said Sanjeev buys and sells commercial property and owns a local hotel as well as Belair Assisted Living. “He’s all about making money grow in America,” McGinty said.
When Fuller took over, there were just eight children left at the day care, and its staff turnover had been so vast that it had employed about 100 people over the previous year, she said.
Coura Wane had enrolled her 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter at Early Trails in spring 2009, but she pulled them out after three months. “They had different teachers every week,” she said. “That was confusing for the kids.”
She moved her children back after it became Children’s Retreat, and she said she thinks it’s now among the best in the neighborhood.
But problems remain. In April, the initial licensing inspection for Children’s Retreat found an inoperable bathroom, a large hole in a wall with pipes exposed, broken equipment, televisions placed in unstable locations and a lack of required activities for children, including language experiences, music, science and art.
Fuller said she kept just two teachers from Early Trails and hired a director with a bachelor’s degree. State records show that all employees are certified in first aid and CPR, which exceeds the state requirement. Twenty-four children are now enrolled.
“Sometimes out of the ashes comes something great,” she said.