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Wednesday, 05 September 2007 00:00

Childcare center’s closing surprises community

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First United Methodist Church’s Child Development Center in Waynesville suddenly closed its daycare and after-school programs two weeks ago, leaving 65 children without childcare. The preschool is still operating.

The center cited the loss of both its director and assistant director in mid-August as the reason for the closure. Both had sought other jobs in higher paying sectors of the childcare and education industry unbeknownst to each other or to the center’s board of directors.

The board of directors might have opted to weather the sudden loss of leadership under different circumstances. However, the center could not risk a misstep for fear of losing its license. The once five-star facility has been operating on a probationary license for 18 months after running afoul with the state childcare regulatory agency. A string of incidents at the childcare center — most involving preschool-aged children exploring their own or each other’s private areas — led the state to cite the center with neglect for failing to properly supervise the children.

All the incidents at the center involved the same few children and mostly occurred under the watch of two teachers. The two teachers were dismissed, and the children are no longer at the center.

The center was also cited for failure to report the children’s behavior to the Department of Social Services as a potential sign of child abuse. In some cases, however, the center didn’t know the incidents had occurred and therefore couldn’t report them. In one case involving a child inserting a pen into the bottom of another child, the teacher failed to share the incident with the center’s director or other staff and instead kept it to herself, according to the state report.

In other cases involving children touching each other’s private areas, the teacher didn’t see the behavior and didn’t know it had occurred until DSS contacted the center after receiving a report from a parent.

The news came as a shock to many in the community — both the news of the closure and that the center was operating on a probationary license after having its coveted five-star status revoked.

“We had always been a well-thought of, well-respected program, and in a lot of people’s opinion the best program in the county,” said Marsh Parris, the long-time director of the First United Methodist Child Development Center until her retirement a year ago. “It was almost a bad luck chain of events. It is like the stars were not in the right alignment. It was like everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”

Regulations governing the childcare industry can cast an overly wide net when strictly interpreted.

“The state’s job is to protect children, but there is a fine line between protecting children and coming up with detrimental standards,” Parris said. “Their rules and regulations sometimes go to extremes.”

For example, the center was cited for lack of supervision for incidents that took just a few seconds to occur and are considered normal sexual exploration for preschoolers by many child psychologists. Other incidents, however, had escalated for a couple of minutes before the teacher noticed and are considered “cause for concern” by child development experts. (see above article)

June Locklear with the state Division of Child Development said any of the incidents in isolation might not have led to a license probation or disciplinary action against the center.

“What we are seeing in this particular case is the repetition of the same type of incidents occurring,” Locklear said.

Although the incidents involved the same children and teachers, the state viewed the problem as systemic with the center. The state wanted to see better internal policies and training for dealing with such issues, from in-class supervision to state laws on reporting. The center was issued a host of protocols to implement during its probationary license period.

Once a childcare center gets caught up in the system, its staff becomes paranoid, Parris said. They report things that most childcare centers probably wouldn’t, but by reporting them, add to their own list of black marks with the state.

“Everyone is afraid not to report the least little thing that might be a violation because if you don’t self-report it could be worse for your program,” Parris said. “Part of our problem was because we have never been through a situation like that, we didn’t know how to deal with the state or what they expected of us.”

The state monitored the childcare center monthly during its probationary period. The monitors never found a violation.

 

Not again

The center was placed on the probationary license in April 2006 for a one-year period. While under the probationary license, a second string of incidents occurred. This time, the incidents involved just one preschool-aged child who repeatedly tried to touch the private parts of others. The behavior occurred behind the teacher’s back or in out-of-view places on the playground.

The first the center heard of the incidents was when DSS came to investigate. A parent of one of the children who got touched apparently reported it to DSS but not the center. The center never got the chance to report the incidents themselves.

“If we had known about it, we would have reported it,” said Janice Feichter, the head of the board of First United Methodist’s Child Development Center.

The touching was considered inappropriate by the state, which cited the center once again for lack of supervision and failure to report the incidents to DSS.

This time, with the probationary license still in effect, the state announced in May that it intended to revoke the center’s license. The board appealed the decision and has spent the past few months working with the state on a plan to keep the center open with corrective measures in place. Feicther described the state as “very receptive” to continuing to work with the center.

The childcare center notified each parent in writing of the center’s status and state’s action, Feicther said. The disciplinary actions by the state, including a detailed report of each incident that occurred at the childcare center, were kept on display in the office for parents to review, as required by state law, Feicther said.

Parents showed few qualms, however, about the care their own child was receiving and continued to support the childcare center.

“Some parents were concerned enough that they did come to the office and review the information and report, but no one removed their child,” Parris said. Parris could only speak to the situation through her tenure at the center. She retired a year ago and was no longer there when the second action by the state was taken.

 

Decision to close

Janice Feichter, the head of the board of directors and a parent with children at the center, said the issues with the state were a factor in the decision to close, “but not the driving factor.”

“We closed the after school and daycare program because we couldn’t guarantee the safety and well-being of the children in our care due to insufficient staffing levels,” Feichter said.

Parents were notified Friday, Aug. 24, that it was the center’s last day, leaving parents little time to find other care by the next work week. Feichter said she understands parents’ frustration. The decision, made the previous evening by the board, was a difficult one, she said.

The board solicited the help of four staff with the Southwestern Child Development Center on short notice to be at the center and help parents with referrals to other childcare centers.

While First United Methodist Church’s Child Development Center may reopen its daycare and after-school program one day, it now has a monumental public relations crisis to overcome following a week of negative media coverage.

“It is heartbreaking to people who have been involved in that program over the years to see something like this happen to an exceptional children’s program. We have been providing quality child care for over 50 years,” Parris said. “To have this kind of situation misrepresented and portrayed incorrectly is unbelievable.”

Or as Locklear puts it: “Bad things happen in good places.”

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