More than 100 pages of documentation collected by regulators for nearly two years indicated that Kidz in Action day care posed potential health and safety hazards to children and had misreported enrollment while receiving federal food subsidies.
At one point last spring, reports show fire inspectors at the facility on Palm Street discovered a gas water heater unsafely converted into an electric one and powered by an extension cord fed into a light fixture. In another instance, child care regulators found a kitchen without hot water and no hand soap at diaper changing stations and in the employee bathroom.
But the state’s main agency for regulating child care apparently didn’t have laws strong enough to shut down, on its own, the chronically noncompliant center.
That was true even though the center received food subsidies and about $36,000 in monthly federal tuition subsidy reimbursement to support the enrollment of low-income children.
The situation highlights just how difficult it can be for a state to shut down substandard federally subsidized child cares. The federal Department of Health and Human Services is seeking to change that, proposing rules in May that could pressure state regulators to have a greater say in enforcing better standards for subsidized centers.
In the meantime, state child care regulators, who work out of the Department of Health and Senior Services, must show an imminent danger to children to immediately revoke a license and shutter a facility. Licensed day cares have the right to appeal the decisions in an administrative hearing – a process that often gets bogged down in appeals and temporary court injunctions to delay closure action.
So, instead of moving to close down Kidz in Action based on state reports and fire and health inspections, the state Section for Child Care Regulation resorted to a local agency to get the job done.
Last month, the state agency asked the St. Louis City Building Division to make an an emergency inspection. It resulted in an immediate June 7 letter of condemnation to the operator of the facility. The letter in effect closed the facility.
Only then, with proof that the facility had lost its occupancy permit, did the state regulators revoke the facility’s license under the basic argument the facility had been condemned and had no occupancy permit.
Tanya Johnson-Shields, the child care center’s owner, has already made most repairs and reapplied for a new occupancy permit, according to the city’s Division of Building and Inspection.
Through an attorney, Johnson-Shields said she also intends to appeal the revocation of her child care license. In a letter sent to the state Wednesday, Shield’s attorney, Bret Rich, argued “there has been no evidence provided in the letter of revocation of any situation described wherein a child in the care of my client was placed in any threat of immediate bodily harm.”
The attorney further argued that the license revocation violated Johnson-Shields’ due process rights and demanded the license be immediately be reinstated.
Rich declined to comment further on the issue.
The city’s condemnation letter cited several minor violations and six major ones. They included a leaky roof, problems with two water heaters — including one sealed behind a wall without ventilation — major rubbish outside the property and a broken front window.
“This should have never gotten that far,” said Dan Coplin, the city building inspector who issued the condemnation notice. “We have to ask how can we get the state on top of the game to immediately shut these things down and to get things done.”
Documents provided by the Department of Health and Senior Services show a pattern of escalating concerns at Kidz in Action.
First, there were multiple violations to licensing requirements for nearly two years. Inspections reported a 20-by-9-foot water-damaged ceiling in the preschool room, inadequate playpens for the number of children, a lack of immunization records, incomplete emergency contact information to reach dozens of parents, and no sheets for the portable cribs or sleeping cots. In one report, the front door was unable to close properly, allowing for unrestricted access in and out of the facility.
In separate May inspections requested by child care regulators, health inspectors found no soap or paper towels in the infant room and in an employee bathroom. In the kitchen, they found no hot water, an inoperable refrigerator and a two-burner stove to prepare meals in a facility that gets federal food subsidies to feed upwards of 70 children a month.
The facility received food cost reimbursement through the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program to help pay to feed poor children in the facility.
But in March, an inspector with Child Care Regulation found discrepancies. On one day, the facility reported 69 children present who qualified for the food program, the costs of which would later be reimbursed by the state. But the center documented just 22 children on attendance sheets that same day.
In June, state fire inspections, also requested by Child Care Licensing, revealed faulty emergency and exit lights, uninspected fire extinguishers and faulty fire alarms. They further reported that a water heater’s gas unit had been unsafely replaced with an electrical heating element typically found on a kitchen range. The element’s wiring was rigged to connect to several feet of electrical wiring that then attached to an extension cord. The cord was plugged into an electrical adapter in a light socket on a nearby wall. The extension cord was hot and rubbery to the touch, the report said.
Meanwhile, according to the St. Louis Office of the Collector of Revenue’s property website, the property owner owes $3,233 in back taxes from 2011 and 2012. Documents further show the day care currently lacks a business license. Last month, the city office sent a request to the building department asking to refrain from issuing an occupancy permit until the taxes were paid.
The Department of Social Services, which administers tuition and food subsidy programs for day cares, has halted both the tuition and food subsidies to the center.
For now, the one-story brick day care with murals of Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob SquarePants, Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Elmo on its facade remains closed. But on Thursday, Johnson-Shields, the center’s operator, has a hearing with the city to seek to regain her occupancy permit – a key step toward potentially reopening.