A protracted federal court battle between a popular north St. Louis County child care center and state licensing officials turned into a standoff Friday.
On the one side were protesting parents and the child care center's director who claimed Tybé Learning Center on Marietta Avenue was the victim of excessive regulation — and even racial harassment.
On the other side were state regulators who vowed to close the center at 5 p.m. after years of efforts to shut it down.
But the deadline passed Friday with no state action. The matter is now likely to carry over into circuit court next week, while a federal case still looms.
The showdown points to the emotional and legal difficulty the state encounters in shuttering licensed day cares it deems unfit.
On Monday, state officials with the Department of Health and Senior Services hand-delivered a letter stating that the department was terminating the center's temporary license and that the facility would have to close its doors.
In 2009, Tybé had been cited for 10 licensing violations, including having more than 50 children supervised by just two adults. More recently, the center has been under scrutiny for $16,000 of irregularities with its state-appropriated food subsidies.
Tybé fought the closure Friday by going to St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Barbara Wallace, who agreed to a one-week injunction to prevent the closure. But Tybé's owner, Carmen Austell, was required to post a $5,000 bond. Austell said she could not come up with the money on short notice. Yet at 5 p.m. the center remained open without a regulator or police officer in sight.
Austell said it appeared regulators were honoring the circuit court injunction.
In a press conference in front of the center earlier Friday, Austell and her supporters said the Department of Health and Senior Services had undertaken a course of unfair harassment and racial discrimination against the African-American owned business.
"They can shut me down, but they can't shut me up," Austell said on the center's parking lot where she was surrounded by about 20 young children attending the center that day.
Some of the children quietly held protest signs against the Department of Health and Senior Services.
One of the signs read, "DHSS Why are you hurting me?" and another read, "Stop your Racism against black daycares."
Austell said the state began its efforts to put her out of business more than two years ago after she spoke out against a state inspector who she said was trumping up licensing violations during inspections.
A request for a comment from the Department of Health and Senior Services was not returned. However, state officials provided documentation Friday indicating Austell had been audited by health officials in April regarding food subsidy reimbursements for needy children. Auditors allege that Austell had been "highly deficient" in administering the program and that she failed to demonstrate that 85 children for which she was seeking reimbursement qualified for the program. Auditors allege Tybé "overclaimed" $15,978 in reimbursements.
Austell said the audit was yet another form of harassment and was untrue.
The center's supporters included community activist Zaki Baruti, president of the Universal African Peoples Organization, and Elston McCowan, pastor of the Star Grace Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis.
The child care center serves about 70 children, ages 2 to 13, and operates from 5:30 a.m. to midnight. It has been in operation for more than a decade.
Tybé, which stands for Teaching Your Babies Excellence, was one of four St. Louis-area child care centers that filed federal lawsuits against the Department of Health and Senior Services in 2009 after being denied license renewals after regulatory violations at each center. Others included Small Hearts II of St. Louis and Hugs and Kisses of Florissant.
In Tybé's case, state records show inspectors found its caregivers repeatedly transporting children in the center's vans without proper licenses and required booster seats. The center was also repeatedly in violation of mandatory child-caregiver ratios as staff came in late or didn't show up.
During one spot inspection, a regulator reported finding two caregivers in charge of 58 children. Documents also show a parent once discovered a lone 15-year-old watching over the center when the parent picked up his child about 10 p.m.
In late 2008 and early 2009, federal judges initially backed Tybé and three other child care centers' claims that the state denied them proper appeal before taking steps that had already cost them thousands in state subsidies.
The judges issued restraining orders allowing the centers to continue operating until administrative hearings were completed. The order allowed the centers to continue to receive tuition and food subsidy reimbursements from the state for low-income clients. For Tybé, the tuition subsidies totaled $10,950 in February for 45 children, said Seth Bundy, spokesman for the Department of Social Services.
But on May 9, the federal injunction was dissolved after court ruled Tybé had been given appropriate due process through an administrative hearing earlier this year. Tybé lost that appeal in late January.
Supporters of Tybé argue that the center is being treated differently than the other day cares in the federal lawsuit.
Earlier this spring, some of those day cares regained their licenses as part of a settlement with the state. In one settlement, Tybé attorney Rufus Tate said, one of the centers agreed to drop the federal lawsuit — and efforts to seek financial damages — in exchange for the licensing renewal.
Austell said the same offer was given to her, but she refused.
"It was about principle and all the suffering that I've gone through for almost two years," she said.
The battle between the state and Tybé is likely to continue both on the circuit and federal level.
Austell said the center lost about a quarter of its clients and tens of thousands of dollars in state subsidies when the state tried to shut it down in 2009. She plans to continue her federal suit seeking damages from the state.
Parents are also trying to deal with what they consider a blow to a very good child care center. Tamika Slaughter said the sudden closure had left her and her two children, ages 3 and 5, in a bind.
"It's like they're just throwing us out to pasture," she said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misidentified a second child care center involved in a federal law suit against the state. This version has been corrected.