Who's Watching The Kids?
A series of controversies -- including two deaths -- has shattered confidence in Shelby County day care centers.
by Ashley Fantz - photos by Daniel Ball
Velma Watkins Was Fed Up.
"I looked through the window and it was all a mess," she says. "There was like 25 toddlers and one teacher who was eating lunch and not doing anything. The kids were everywhere, dirty, crying and fighting on top of the other."
Watkins told the day care worker that Murlie was not coming back, as the little girl waved goodbye to her friends. The two headed downtown to spend the afternoon together. Watkins was grateful for the day with her grandchild, but the thought of finding another day care weighed heavy in her thoughts. She knew how hard it was to find affordable care in Memphis. Koinonia charged $77 per week -- just slightly lower than most other centers. Money was tighter than tight since Watkins' daughter, 18-year-old Veaches Cooper, had given birth to Murlie. Cooper had hopes of going to Shelby State, but was unemployed. Watkins earned $14 an hour as a rest home attendant, but that barely paid the bills at their North Memphis home.
You could call it luck that Murlie had to use the restroom just as she and Watkins strolled past Calvary Place Child Care on North Second Street. Watkins calls it a miracle. Calvary Place was "like a palace" compared to the other day cares the grandmother had seen.
"It was totally different," she recalls. "The kids seemed happy, and there were a lot of teachers who were actually talking and not yelling at the kids. I explained that I was looking for a center like that for my baby."
Watkins took information about Calvary home and showed it to Cooper. Neither one thought they could afford the $115-a-week, $6,000-a-year tuition that the center charged for toddler and infant care. But desperately wanting Murlie nurtured in a safe, educational environment, Watkins took three jobs and Cooper enrolled at Shelby State. Calvary offered the family one of its eight available scholarships, which would pay 50 percent of the costs. A state voucher, which neither Cooper nor Watkins knew was available to them at other centers, paid the rest.
Shortly after Murlie enrolled at Calvary, Cooper landed a job -- at another day care.
"I would never let my child go to the day care where I work," Cooper says. "It's a shame that if you don't have some money you can't get decent day care. I see that every day personally and at work. It's unfair, but what choice do most people have?"
Watkins and Cooper are among thousands of grandparents and parents who struggle to find quality day care in Memphis. Tennessee is one of the lowest ranking states for day care quality in the nation, according to a 1999 National Association for the Education of Young Children study. Next to Wyoming and New Jersey, the state requires the least training from its employees -- a mere 12 hours of general child care lessons during employment. Most other states demand at least 24 hours of academic and practical training. Tennessee's day care workers do not have to have a high school diploma, prior child care experience nor first aid or CPR training. Workers are usually paid minimum wage and turnover is high. Employers are not required to run criminal background checks on prospective employees.
The result of this "hiring people off the street," process, as one director calls it, can seriously endanger children. For example, the Flyer ran criminal background checks on a group of 30 day care workers from around the city. Workers at Sandy Vogel Lewis Neighborhood House on North Lauderdale Avenue and New Tyler Child Development Center on Summer Avenue turned out to have criminal records. One was for shoplifting, another -- this time a day care van driver -- had previously been arrested for contempt of Juvenile Court and driving with a suspended license. The van driver is no longer employed at New Tyler. The news came as a surprise to the respective centers' directors.
Before hearing that one of her workers had a criminal record, Sandy Vogel Lewis Neighborhood House director Katherline Maclin said, "We as professionals need to step up the quality of child care overall. We should hire more child-responsive people. Some people come into it thinking it's like baby-sitting. Like they can talk to and treat a child the way that they were when they were kids. There are a lot of different things wrong with the system."
Understanding the Understaffed
Licensing counselor Louise Hall's case load recently dropped from 90 day cares to 60 after DHS hired two more counselors. Counselors are especially strapped now as the school year begins and day care enrollment shifts dramatically. According to Hall, it's routine for a counselor to issue a violation against a center, then visit a few days later to find that the day care has corrected the problem. Sometimes a center is allotted 10 days to correct a violation.
"We have so many procedures before we can seriously consider closing a place down," she says. "We have to assess who did what to whom and whether it's a valid complaint in the first place. Most of the time, you just don't have any hard evidence to support a complaint."
Before this year, DHS was required to inspect day cares once a year. New legislation mandates that counselors inspect their assigned day cares at least twice a year. One of those visits must be a surprise. If a counselor notes a violation, depending on its severity, the procedure is to first verbally inform the director of the violation. A follow-up letter of warning outlining the violation is then mailed to the center.
This system was used in 1993 when ABC Child Care Center on Airways Blvd. was cited by DHS worker Phyllis Doss for roaches, bird feces found where the children sleep, stained carpeting, dead flies, uncovered food in the refrigerator, and no shield on a light bulb. The center received a warning letter, Doss says, and after that "it's in the health department's hands."
But those violations are not considered "critical" enough to shut a center down according to Memphis and Shelby County Health Department training director Phyllis Moss-McNeill. "If it's not an imminent hazard to the children like sewage backing up or the center having no water, then the center will remain open," she says. "We notify DHS because they are the licensors and tell them if we found the same thing."
Like DHS, the Health Department is required to inspect day cares twice yearly. Unfortunately, the Health Department is even more understaffed than DHS. There are just two health department officials assigned to all Memphis-area day cares.
A look through various day care inspection records from 1993 to the present yields startling information about repeated violations at some centers. At LaShawn's Around the Clock Learning Center in Midtown, the center's staff was reprimanded this year for problems keeping roll, particularly forgetting to check the bus roster daily. In May, a child was injured at the center for what DHS calls "lack of adult supervision." Two months later, across town at the Sandy Vogel Lewis Neighborhood House, a 4-year-old walked off the premises. A letter from licensing supervisor Alice Hill sent to the day care's director reads that if the center is found in violation of the same incident a second time, the center would be in jeopardy of losing its license. Yet in DHS's Sandy Vogel Lewis file, there are several violations logged for 1997. In August, the center is criticized by DHS for "lack of adult supervision," and then in October, cited for the same offense -- "lack of adult supervision" -- when a child was left on a field trip. In November 1997, a DHS worker cited Sandy Vogel Lewis for missing records including children and staff medical transcripts and proof of training papers.
When background checks revealed that one of Sandy Lewis Vogel's day care workers has been arrested for shoplifting, director Katherline Maclin says she'll likely start checking the backgrounds of applicants more thoroughly. But, legally, there is no DHS rule prohibiting the employment of felons at day cares unless their charges involve children or drugs.
"If they are not currently charged with something," Hill says. "And if it [the charge] does not involve children, there is nothing in our books that says they should not keep their jobs."
Other serious violations found in inspection records that were followed up with warning letters from DHS include an incident in 1996 at Never Ending Rainbow Learning Center on James Road. In September, a child was driven to and left at the wrong location by workers. In July 1998, a 5-year-old was left in Genesis Preschool on Millbranch Road after the center had closed. Nine days later, the same center was cited for incomplete records and dangerous playground debris. At Children's Palace Learning Academy on Chelsea -- the same center where 22-month-old Darnecia Slater died in July of accidental hypothermia in a sweltering day care van -- a DHS worker filed a complaint on January 20, 1995 after a 2-year-old was left inside a van. The driver kept his job.
Making Cents out of Day Care
"I don't know anything about inspection records," she says. "That's DHS's job. We just put the children where the parents want them to go."
There are some in the child-care industry who say Cherokee has held the contract for too long, suggesting that Memphis needs more than one broker. Last year, Karamu Nutrition Center -- an agency that provides free or reduced government-subsidized food to area day cares -- bid for the brokerage contract. Karamu's bid last year was low, $4.15 compared to Cherokee's $8.50. Bids are estimated costs to feed and care for a child per day.
Karamu's director Vera Corley says, "The county would benefit from having more than one broker," she says. "Just the number alone of children to place is overwhelming for one agency."
In May 1998, then Tennessee Commissioner of Human Services, Linda Rudolph, suddenly canceled the bidding process. It was "flawed," she said, and awarded Cherokee an extended contract through the end of 1999. Rudolph, who was replaced in January by Natasha Metcalf, refused to elaborate on what the flaws were "because it would jeopardize any future bidding."
Even now, officials will still not comment on what Rudolph meant by "flawed." Spokesperson Lisa Gallon says, "The flaws were in the applications and that's all I can say to avoid prejudicing any future bidding."
The state is currently evaluating the application process and plans to take new bids for brokerage contract renewal before the end of year. Both Cherokee and Karamu plan to bid again when applications are available.
Before child care centers relied on brokers, Memphis social worker William Hackett directed for 20 years the Community Daycare and Comprehensive Social Services Association, or CDCSSA, which managed 40 city day cares. The association received federal and state block grants amounting to more than $4 million annually. Because CDCSSA received federal money, centers followed federal regulations and codes, which are much more stringent than state codes.
"We had social workers, the staff had to have at least a high school education, the directors a college education. Seventy-four percent of our funds went to personnel," Hackett says. "We rarely allowed transportation of the children unless the child was handicapped -- or had other exceptional needs. If there was a child riding on a bus, the parents signed them on, the children were taken in by the lead teacher or director and then the director would do a walk-through and personally moved the vans to a different location and locked them. Day care used to be a thorough operation."
Hackett says it's time to "put some teeth" into current state regulation enforcement.
"More people need to have the authority to close a place down if they see something threatening to a child," he says. "Too many things slip through the cracks because of this elaborate procedure agencies have to follow."
Hackett recalls community members and philanthropic agencies helping the CDCSSA as child care demand increased over the years.
"We were dealing with vocal boards of directors and interested individuals in the community -- who had no other objective but to help kids. You didn't open a day care to receive state money. Back then, running a day care wasn't a way for business-minded people to make money," says Hackett.
The Good, the Better, and the (Mostly) Unaccredited
Out of more than 800 day cares in Memphis, just seven are accredited with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, child care's leading accreditation body. Most Memphis-area centers complain that NAEYC charges too much money and that the process, which can take up to a year, is too time-consuming. Costs for accreditation depend on the number of children enrolled. For example, application and validation fees for 60 or fewer children cost $425. Costs peak at over $1,000 for a center serving between 241 and 360 children. The majority of the city's day cares are within the latter range. There is no guarantee that a center will be accredited after going through the process, which includes an extensive director-written self-analysis. Nor does the center receive money back if the NAEYC's three-person "committee of child care experts" does not approve accreditation.
But going through the accreditation process was worth it to Calvary Place Child Care and University Churches Day Care on South Patterson. Their directors feel that accreditation improves their reputation and legitimizes the quality of their center.
"It was a trying, long process but it [accreditation] gives our parents more reassurance that this is a good center," Calvary executive director Susan Faughn says.
Because Calvary doesn't hire people without child care experience, only those familiar with the importance of accreditation typically apply for positions.
At University Churches Daycare, the struggle to find quality caregivers is more challenging, although the center hasn't experience high turnover in recent years. Executive director Daphne Collins tries to think of her day care as a nurturing environment for young children, but says she's often worried she won't make ends meet to pay her employees and cover other overhead expenses. This year, 50 percent of UCD's enrollment will depend on state assistance.
"The problem is that we are reimbursed by the state after the fact -- after we have spent our own funds to feed and care for the children," Collins says. "It's a constant struggle to generate money and that takes away from how much focus we can give to helping the children learn and grow."
Collins says politicians have given too much lip service and not enough substantial action to day care problems.
"This is definitely being addressed in the mayor's race this year. This is a big issue now," she says. "Instead of funneling money into bringing factories and businesses to Memphis, politicians should be applying for federal grants to help all of the kids at poverty level get adequate day care. If the government is telling me that there are 50 percent of the kids in my day care whose parents can't even afford to buy them lunch, then something's really wrong."
The City Steps Forward
Less than a week after the day care van deaths of toddlers Darnecia Slater and Brandon Mann, Mayor Willie Herenton appointed councilman Brent Taylor to organize an ad-hoc committee to come up with ways to improve the city's day care quality. Two weeks ago, the committee presented an ordinance proposal requiring that day cares post the name and address of the owner and director; most recent fire, health, and DHS inspection report; a certificate of liability insurance; and a list of all employees whose qualifications are available upon request. Current enrollment and enrollment capacity should also be visible. If a center receives any violation regardless of its severity, the center is mandated to report it to the Mayor's Citizen Service Center within 30 days.
Although it's not outlined how the Citizen Service Center could keep track of DHS-cited violations, the ordinance reads that failure to report violations "shall result in the revocation of the day care center's Special Unit Permit," which allows day cares to operate on commercial property. Yet not all day cares are required to have a Special Unit Permit. The city does not have the legal authority to close down a center unless it has violated a fire code or occupancy law -- meaning that there are more people in a center than what the center is licensed for. DHS must handle all other violations.
"That's the problem right now," councilman Taylor says. "We're trying to change the language to Use and Occupancy Permit. Every business has to have that, so if there's a problem we can step in."
In addition to the city policing already operating day cares, Carol Greenwald, co-director of Shelby State's Tennessee Delta Child Care Resource Center, says not enough day care directors have adequate information about available employee training that could prevent compromising situations from becoming DHS classified violations.
"I don't know if all directors understand the importance of those early childhood years," she says. "There's a really high turnover so if you gave more training to the employees, they would be more likely to stick around and that would cut down on new people who don't know much about early childhood education from making mistakes."
Greenwald stressed that parents need to be exceptionally educated about what defines a quality center such as low child/adult ratios, trained caregivers, and a challenging curriculum.
Mother of two toddlers, Kimmie Vaulx says finding a day care that she could trust was daunting. She eventually placed her children at Calvary.
"It's extremely emotional when you have to leave your new baby with people you don't know," she says. "When I had my first, I didn't have any day care experience or a set of standards to follow when I was looking for one. I relied on referrals from friends."
Further complicating the day care search, many higher quality day cares, such as Calvary Place Child Care, have long applicant waiting lists and few scholarship slots.
"You just deal with whatever complications there are to put your child in the best hands," Vaulx says. "A parent has to be willing and educated enough to do that.
In addition to Herenton's ad-hoc committee, another committee, chaired by chief administrative officer Rick Masson, includes child care professionals from Porter Leath Child Care, DHS, the United Way, and Tennessee Early Childhood Training Alliance. State-funded with $1.5 million each year, TECTA offers a 30-hour orientation in early childhood development. Ideally, day care employees will put that credit toward achieving Early Childhood Development certificates. TECTA's director Nancy Jones says there are too few day care employees using TECTA's services. Class tuition is under $500 for 120 hours, some of which TECTA pays.
"Workers are paid poorly, so the attitude is, 'Why should I pay for a class and spend my extra time when I'm still only going to get paid a small amount anyway,'" Jones says. "Everything from teacher training to directors taking more responsibility for their centers to higher worker wages has to happen before things improve. It's going to be a very long-term process."
Last week Shelby State announced that it was using a DHS grant to offer free, 30-hour training courses for child care workers.
"The first thing day care professionals should do is to not open more non-quality centers," says Jones. "We have to look at the centers that aren't meeting standards now and immediately demand that they do [meet standards] or close them down."
Recently, DHS has revoked the license of one day care -- Tender Love and Care on Chelsea -- when a driver transporting a van load of children was picked up for drunk driving. In early August, DHS suspended the license of Children's World Learning Center on Pleasant View after a 7-year-old was left in the center's van after returning from a field trip.
Pee Wee Wisdom Learning Center re-opened one week after 2-year-old Brandon Mann died in one of its vans, as did Children's Palace Learning Center, where Darnecia Slater died. In separate state hearings that didn't run more than 15 minutes, the day cares convinced DHS officials that they had already stepped up their procedures.
Baby Steps Toward
Two weeks before a Tender Love and Care day care worker was arrested for driving drunk with seven children in his van, officials in Nashville were fielding calls about what else they were going to do to make day cares safer -- particularly transportation.
Tennessee Commissioner of Human Services Natasha Metcalf had already sent copies of the state's day care regulations to all Memphis day cares, which included a clarification of transportation rules.
Spokesperson Patricia Harris-Morehead says, "We thought that the transportation rules that day cares already had was sufficient enough, but we obviously needed to explain more."
The director of H. Belle's Child Care Center on Millbranch says she thinks the state should consistently remind day care workers about rules and regulations. Otherwise it's "understandable that they get slack," says Mary Gatlin.
"Day cares have to be reminded to stay on their toes," Gatlin explains. "We [H. Belle's Child Care Center] don't do it as often as we should -- sit down and talk about what our responsibilities are."
Gatlin received the newly drafted transportation rules and has applied them to her center, which transports kids on a daily basis.
Jack and Jill Day Care Center on Jackson Avenue has stepped up its transportation rules. Before receiving the new rules, a driver checked the bus roll. Now the bus driver, attendant, and director check and double-check the bus and van roll.
But, as the recent incident of a day care worker throwing her newborn into a trash bin shows, rules are only as effective as the people who care enough about children to follow them.
"That is the real thing," Gatlin says. "It's the people at these centers who are doing things wrong. It doesn't matter how many rules they make."
In addition to issuing those rules, state legislation that gives DHS more authority to reprimand remiss day care workers could take months to draft and pass. That sentiment was evident last week when legislators met with DHS counselors, parents and day care workers.
Carol Chumney (D-Memphis) says, "You'll see a combination of regulations drafted by the [Sundquist] administration and state law as soon as we're able."
Lawmakers are seriously considering requiring employee background checks and finding ways to make that process less expensive.
Phone calls Chumney received from Germantown and Memphis parents before the day care meeting left the most striking impression.
"This issue has crossed economic and cultural lines," she says. " I had a woman tell me about trouble she had with a Germantown day care. They were white and black, all different kinds of people had trouble. There's a perception that this is only a Families First issue, and that's not the case. We're going to try to work with the governor on this. We don't always agree on how money should be spent, but we're going to try."
In the meantime many centers stand to profit quicker from cutting back on employee pay and benefits and herding hundreds of children into one facility, ignoring their individual needs and rights. Violations will continue to flood DHS, and DHS will continue to send warning letters to offending day cares -- a system that has proven largely ineffective, time-consuming, and costly for the people who already pay too much.
"It's hard for parents because day care is expensive and now, with everything that's happened, you don't think you can trust any one of them," says Velma Watkins, while she and Cooper picked Murlie up from Calvary Place Child Care.
As the 3-year-old skips around in a denim jumper pointing at pink and purple pictures of animals on the center's walls, her grandmother explains that Murlie's personality has changed since attending Calvary. Before, the girl seemed withdrawn and lethargic.
"She smiles more now and has learned how to say please and thank you," Watkins says.
The change, Watkins noticed, was almost immediate.
"I guess we're real lucky."
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