June 6, 2009
Since December, Kiddelina Stafford, a 32-year-old single mother of four, has been working the government system that's designed to protect children, but she says the system has not been working for her.
It took five months and dogged persistence on her part before the Colorado Department of Human Services and local police took the type of action Stafford thought was warranted after her 7-year-old son received facial bruising and a bloody lip while at a local day care center.
"Everyone dropped the ball, and I'm so enraged. I want an overhaul of the system because it doesn't work," said Stafford.
El Paso County leads the state in the number of calls made to a 24-hour child abuse and neglect reporting hotline, which had a record 11,010 calls last year, and police and local and state child protective services say they follow protocol in investigating reports of suspected child abuse or neglect, including at child care centers.
Although authorities acknowledge understaffing is an issue, they say that if there appears to be an element of danger to a child, they move quickly to shut down a center.
But the system is difficult to negotiate, according to Stafford and another local parent whose child also was injured while at a local day care center. They say issues of confidentiality that surround allegations of child abuse and the complexities of proving wrongdoing when a child is involved act as roadblocks that leave parents feeling less than confident that child care facilities are being properly monitored and held accountable.
'I might have told her I popped him one'
According to a police report Stafford filed Dec. 4, her son told officers "very clearly and concisely" that his day care provider had "struck him five times in the face with an open hand in a shoving-type motion."
And Stafford told police that the owner of Little People's Playhouse, Barbara Myrick, told her she had struck her son.
Myrick told police she saw bruising under the boy's eye but that she did not hit the boy in the face and had "no explanation for the injury." Yet, when police asked Myrick if she had told the boy's mother that she had hit him, Myrick responded: "I might have told her I popped him one."
Another worker at the day care center told police that Myrick said she "popped the victim on the hand for talking back to her about having to do his homework."
The case was sent to the Crimes Against Children Unit, but police did not make an arrest because of lack of evidence, said police spokesman Lt. David Whitlock.
Police referred the case to the El Paso County Department of Human Services, which investigated and sent Stafford an e-mail in mid-February, saying "the report is inconclusive for abuse and is closed."
The local DHS office would not discuss details of the case, because the agency is required to maintain confidentiality around all child abuse and neglect reports, said Rick Bengtsson, acting director.
The state DHS licensing office, which monitors health and safety issues, also investigated, and in April determined "harsh treatment" had been involved in the incident.
Police then served Myrick with a summons to appear in court for arraignment June 10, on a complaint on misdemeanor child abuse.
Myrick's lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
Stafford said she doesn't understand why months passed before she saw results.
Whitlock's reply: "The length of time it took was a standpoint of our staffing and the simple fact that there wasn't an endangerment situation because it wasn't a felony crime."
Another family frustrated
Stafford is not the only parent who finds the system frustrating.
Beth Timbs believes a day care worker at the Child Nursery Center at Chelton broke her 4-year-old son's leg by pulling him across the playground after he had fallen. But she can't prove it, and it's her word against the center's staff, who told police and Timbs that the boy had tripped on a ball on the playground. Although the boy's thigh was "swollen," according to the police report, the center did not call an ambulance or take the child to a hospital.
Diane Price, chief executive of the Child Nursery Centers, a nonprofit that operates five local centers, including the Chelton location, and advises 20 day care homes, said the organization's policy was to not call emergency services if an injury was not life-threatening.
Police closed the case under "suspicious circumstances," according to the police report.
About six weeks later, as he got his cast off, the boy told his mother that a day care worker had grabbed his leg, twisted it and broken it, and that workers told him to say he hurt it on the ball.
Timbs again contacted police, who reopened the case but did not find enough evidence to make an arrest.
Price said the accident occurred in late afternoon, and when an aunt came to pick up the boy, center staff asked if they wanted her call to an ambulance. She declined.
"We take these things very seriously," Price said, "and we had seven children on the playground with four teachers - well beyond the teacher/child ratio requirements. All of our teachers documented what they saw, and it was just an accident. He was kicking a ball, the ball went out from beneath him and he fell."
The center paid for the boy's medical care and changed its policies after the incident, Price said, and now requires that parents and 911 be called simultaneously if a child is injured but can get up on his own.
As a child care provider, Price said she welcomes investigations and inspections of her centers because having oversight helps her staff improve the services they provide.
During the time of Timbs' son's injury, the Chelton center was on probation for six months for "consistently failing to maintain standards prescribed and published by the department," according to a letter the state licensing division sent parents.
Problems mainly stemmed from a "breakdown in communication between the inspector and us," Price said. The center responded, she said, by improving communications, reviewing internal policies, doing its own monitoring for licensing compliance and taking other measures.
"The majority of our industry wants to work with licensing because we want our industry to have a positive impact in our community," Price said. "I feel confident in our licensing system - the department does a good job given its limited resources.
"Parents are purchasing a service, asking us to care for their children, and we constantly monitor and upgrade our policies and practices to ensure a safe, nurturing, high-quality environment."
Colorado's system earns poor marks
Roger Esquibel, administrator of child care licensing for the state, said his department is working to improve Colorado's system, which earned an "F" in a study by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies that was released in March.
The study ranked Colorado's child care system 41 among the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Department of Defense. Among Colorado's weaknesses: child centers are inspected, on average, once every two years, when the national standard recommendation is four times a year, and licensing inspectors handle an average of 140 programs each. The national average is 75. The state also does not meet the organization's ratio and group size requirements for any of seven age groups.
Esquibel said a low number of licensing inspectors - about 75, of which 40 are contracted workers - contribute to the state's shortfalls. Colorado's 9,000 licensed child care programs, which serve about 220,000 children and include centers, family homes, preschools and 24-hour group homes, are inspected on a risk-based assessment approach.
Facilities on probation, for example, are inspected at least monthly and perhaps weekly, Esquibel said. Others that have had a history of good inspections may only be inspected once every three years.
The state's actions are based on the possibility of harm, Esquibel said: "We have several legal avenues - if the children are in danger and it's corroborated by county social services or law enforcement, we can shut them down immediately."
Also expected to help the system is new state legislation that on May 19 created a Child Welfare Training Academy to train child protection caseworkers. The academy, run by the state DHS, also established statewide standards for competency, assessment and training of child welfare staff.
To add a "level of transparency," Esquibel said, the state DHS lists on its Web site complaints, actions and other information on child care facilities in all 64 counties. Parents can request full reports on investigations and results.
Esquibel recommends parents choose licensed centers because "then you have another pair of eyes watching, along with background checks and some kind of training."
He also said parents should do unannounced visits of the center or home, talk with other parents who have children at the provider and report complaints.
"It's a partnership with law enforcement, state licensing, local county agencies and the parents, that all of us in child care need to be vigilant in making sure children are safe," Esquibel said.