State officials have temporarily closed two more Tacoma day care centers run by the Lakewood-based organization that operates a third center which was temporarily shuttered in mid-March.
Two Tacoma Sprouts Growth Centers, one located at 7503 Portland Ave. and the other at 4810 S. Wilkeson St., were notified Monday by the state Department of Early Learning that their licenses would be suspended while state officials investigate complaints.
DEL had previously closed a Sprouts center at 4715 S. 12th St. following complaints that sparked an investigation.
Kathy Cooley-Dance, who owns the three centers, was traveling and unavailable for comment. But Jim Aitkins, director of national growth strategy for the day cares, said none of the alleged violations warrants a closure, even a temporary one.
“No one has alleged or found any children at risk, or being harmed,” he said. He contends that other day care operators may face fines for problems similar to the ones alleged at Sprouts, but they are allowed to stay open.
Aitkins noted that while the Sprouts centers are closed, 80 employees are without work and several hundred families are without child care. He said that’s particularly significant because Sprouts centers provide 24-hour care and that round-the-clock child care is difficult to find.
Asked to respond, DEL issued this statement Friday: “We work with providers so they can have a safe and healthy environment for the children in their care. When that safety and health is compromised and poses and imminent risk, license suspension is the best course of action to keep children from harm.”
DEL’s letters to the day care owner said the agency has the power to suspend a day care license in situations where there is an imminent danger to children, where there are public health and safety issues, or for other rules violations. The license suspensions are in effect during the investigation, which will be led by a division of Child Protective Services. The investigations could take up to 90 days.
The letters spell out several allegations. Among them:
• Teens from a residential youth facility also run by Cooley-Dance were allowed to supervise up to five children for several hours at the Wilkeson Street center. The complaint alleged that the youth had criminal records and had recently been released from Remann Hall, the county’s juvenile detention facility. Another complaint said the teens were “on probation and house arrest.”
Aitkins said the allegations about the teens are untrue. He said they were reported to state officials by “someone with an ax to grind.”
“Kathy has hired some of the more responsible teens, who are getting their lives together,” he said, noting that any teens from the residential facility who have troubled backgrounds would not be employed by Sprouts.
Under state rules, teens as young as 16 can work in day care centers as assistants or volunteers, but lead teachers must be at least 18, and workers under 18 can’t be solely responsible for a group of children.
• At all three centers, investigators questioned whether all staff members had cleared background checks.
Aitkins said Sprouts centers check to see that all prospective employees’ background checks are either cleared, or in process, before a hire is made. State rules allow an employee whose background check is in progress to start work, but they must be supervised by someone with a cleared background and cannot be left alone with children until cleared.
Aitkins said a problem sometimes occurs when an employee who has worked at another day care center comes to work for Sprouts. The background check from the previous job should be available in the state’s online system, he said. But he contends the system is sometimes inoperable, searching is difficult and “one or two of our managers have yet to be given access to the (system) by DEL.”
He did acknowledge that there is one Sprouts employee who possibly did not have a cleared background check.
According to state regulations, anyone who cares for or has unsupervised access to children in licensed care must register in the state online system and have a state-issued ID. The account manager, typically the director of the facility or a designee, can see the background check for every registered individual.
Alternately, DEL officials said, anyone can use the Child Care Check feature on the DEL website, del.wa.gov , to view facility information such as background check and complaint status, as long as the facility is not currently suspended or closed.
• A complaint from the Portland Avenue center alleged that a lack of supervision was responsible for two children who were allowed to inappropriately touch each other.
Aitkins said the incident involved a boy lifting up his shirt to another boy, and that it was a Sprouts employee who reported it to state officials. He said Child Protective Services officials asked questions about the incident, and that’s when more serious allegations arose, suggesting that the touching may have gone further.
“It didn’t happen,” Aitkins said. “Our employee was right there.”
Sprouts has already responded in writing to state officials regarding the license suspension at the South 12th Street location.
Among the complaints at that center that were listed in a March 17 letter were allegations that the center was short-staffed with two employees caring for 11 children, that there weren’t enough infant cribs on site, that refrigerated baby bottles were not labeled or dated, and that high chairs were not cleaned between feedings.
Aitkins said the short-staffing happened when a parent dropped off children who were not scheduled for care. He said the situation was resolved by calling in extra workers.
He said the crib shortage was a misperception. He said one baby was put to sleep on a blanket over a play mat on the floor, but that it was done at the parent’s request to help the child fall asleep. He acknowledged that center operators later learned this practice was not allowed, and said it would not happen again.
The letter from Sprouts to state officials denied that multiple baby bottles were unlabeled or undated. It said there was one bottle containing medication that had been mixed by the baby’s mother, and that the bottle in question remained in the baby’s bag.
As for the complaint about dirty high chairs, Aitkins said they should have been cleaned better.
“That was embarrassing,” he said.
In addition to causing problems for families and employees, Aitkins said the controversy and publicity over the closures have stymied expansion plans for the company. Sprouts wants to open a center in Brown’s Point and another on Sixth Avenue in Tacoma. But he said those plans have been placed on hold. Sprouts also wants to open centers in several other states.
Aitkins said Sprouts is appealing the closures of the three Tacoma centers to DEL, and will also seek a court injunction. A day care that disagrees with a suspension can appeal to an administrative law judge to request to remain open until the judge makes a determination in a hearing.
“We are going to pursue legal action to recover what we’ve lost,” Aitkins said.