Our analysis of state records for the past five years shows that at least: 8 children died, 239 were injured, 62 broke bones, 4 fractured skulls, 7 had fingers severed or amputated, 34 suffered burns, 50 wandered off
Mike Ratcliff didn’t know whether his son was alive or dead.
A lifeguard at the day care center had found Ratcliff’s 2-year-old son on the bottom of the pool, his face turning blue. Ratcliff got the call at work.
He cut the 45-minute drive to the hospital in half and ran inside to find his groggy son, revived by CPR, in his wife’s arms.
“She gave him right to me,” Ratcliff said of his son John. “And I just couldn’t let go. I held him for, gosh, just about the entire night.”
What happened to John was one of nearly 500 major incidents at Georgia child care programs during the past five years, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.
The newspaper’s investigation offers a never-before-seen glimpse into the disturbing and sometimes bizarre happenings at day care programs throughout the state. One day care released the wrong child to the blind grandfather of another child. Another child care provider’s boyfriend kidnapped two children in her care.
It also revealed that the Department of Early Care and Learning, the state agency in charge of overseeing child care programs:
-- Revokes licenses of child care providers at a lower rate than most neighboring states.
-- Denies applications for potential child care providers at a lower rate than most neighboring states.
-- Relies heavily on fines but rarely uses other available sanctions.
-- Typically targets smaller home-based providers when it does revoke licenses, even though larger centers get most of the serious violations.
The AJC’s findings didn’t surprise Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, which ranks states based on their child care oversight. This year NACCRRA placed Georgia at 36th, an improvement from its 2009 ranking of 49th.
“I don’t think they’ve spent a lot of time thinking about licensing and thinking about child care for quite some time,” Smith said. “All of this points me in the direction of a broken system that really needs to be scrubbed.”
Bobby Cagle, commissioner of DECAL, questioned whether Georgia’s statistics could be fairly compared to other Southern states’ because they operate differently. But Cable said his agency is long overdue for an internal review, which he says will begin in November.
“I am concerned that we have not taken a close look at our system in many years,” he said. “I think it was 1987 since the last time the system had an outside expert come in and take a look at it.”
Georgia has issued 497 severe penalties — called “adverse actions” — in the past five years.
Those penalties came in response to major incidents at 436 child-care programs, a small fraction of the state’s 6,686 providers.
But what has occurred in those programs is enough to make any parent lose sleep.
Sara Poole, a single mother of three, got a phone call one morning in May 2008 from the Cobb County police.
Her 7-year-old son had scaled a fence at his Kennesaw day care and walked 2 1/2 miles, across busy Cobb Parkway, trying to find his home. He hadn’t seen his mother, who had been visiting an ailing relative, for a week.
Children have wandered off from Georgia day care centers at least 50 times in the past five years, the AJC found. Several made their way to neighborhood stores. Others were found crossing busy highways and roads.
Poole’s son, however, might have gone the farthest.
“He’s a little guy,” said Poole, 31, a Kennesaw State University student. “He’s not supposed to be able to do that.”
A woman driving by saw Poole’s son wandering along the street by himself and called 911. The police called Poole to the scene.
“He was a little shook up,” she said of her son, now 11 and in the sixth grade. “Of course, I start to cry because I’m relieved my son’s OK.”
The day care center owner, Lisa Armstrong, apologized to Poole, who pulled her children from the center.
The state fined the Happy Day’s center $299, the lesser of the two fines it generally issues.
When reached by phone Friday, a woman at the facility, who declined to identify herself, said that the owner declined to comment.
Aggressive on fines
It’s no surprise that the state fined Happy Day’s.
The state handed down fines in almost 90 percent of the incidents, the analysis showed. It rarely restricted licenses by, for example, prohibiting providers from taking children on field trips after committing a serious transportation violation.
North Carolina, which receives praise for its child care oversight, doesn’t issue fines nearly as often as Georgia.
But it revoked child care licenses more than three times as often as Georgia between 2007 and 2010, according to data obtained by the AJC. Georgia also revokes licenses at a lower rate than Kentucky, Louisiana and South Carolina.
Of the six Southern states in the AJC’s analysis, only Alabama pulled licenses at a lesser rate than Georgia.
Georgia’s numbers “may suggest that we don’t invest in the resources to appropriately monitor the child care providers that we have,” said Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children. “When you don’t have the resources to monitor and inspect ... then you are less likely to [revoke licenses].”
Commissioner Cagle said that states approach child care oversight differently — some are faster to revoke licenses than others. He said his agency tries to work with child care centers to fix their problems, rather than being quick to revoke.
“We take the approach that it’s better to try to correct the violation and assist the center in coming into compliance than it is to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Cagle said.
Carolyn Salvador, executive director of Georgia Child Care Association, which represents child care providers, said the state historically has not revoked many licenses.
But Salvador says she isn’t concerned about the AJC’s findings because the state is steadily improving its oversight. Salvador said DECAL has recently strengthened its rules, used federal money to help troubled centers improve and is working on rolling out a larger incentive-based program to raise the quality of child care.
“In a vacuum, ask me what those numbers mean [and] it doesn’t look good,” she said. “But I feel like we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”
While Georgia revokes licenses less often than its neighbors, it also isn’t turning many potential child care providers away. Between the 2007 and 2010 fiscal years, Georgia only denied seven licenses, a lesser rate than North Carolina, Louisiana and Kentucky.
Cagle suggested that Georgia’s numbers could be low because the state might have fewer applications than other states.
‘Picking on the small fry’
Georgia has revoked 44 licenses in the past five years.
However, more than three-fourths of the time, the state revoked the licenses of small-operation providers who work out of their homes and care for six or fewer children.
It’s an unusual pattern, considering that 85 percent of all the major penalties involved child care centers that care for 19 or more children.
The AJC’s analysis also revealed that 52 child care providers had two or three major penalties during the past five years. All but two were the larger commercial centers. Four had their licenses revoked.
“It suggests the state is picking on the small fry and turning a blind eye to the sector of the child care economy where the problems are more severe,” said Georgetown University public policy professor William Gormley, who specializes in early childhood care and education.
It’s easier to put a woman who cares for four children at her house out of business than a center that has dozens of children and numerous employees, Gormley said.
“It’s a much bigger deal to close a center because so many more children are involved, because it’s a small business,” he said. “Microbusinesses are more expendable than small businesses.”
Cagle said he could not comment on the revocation trend, saying he needed to verify the AJC’s figures.
The AJC tried to reach the child care providers that had the most serious incidents. Of the state’s nearly 6,700 providers, nine have gotten three major penalties each. Of those, two had their licenses revoked, though one is appealing the revocation, according to the state’s records.
All either declined to comment or did not return phone messages.
One woman who initially said she was one of the owners of Agape Christian Academy, located on Lakewood Avenue in Atlanta, declined to comment and told an AJC reporter that she couldn’t remember her name.
This summer, Lawrenceville mother Rhonda Vilorio pulled her two children out of Kids R Kids No. 3 on Johnson Road, a day care center that has repeatedly been cited by the state. Vilorio kept her children enrolled at the center after her 1 1/2-year-old son Phoenix’s elbow was somehow dislocated in June 2010.
A year later, on June 20, a staffer accidentally left Phoenix alone on a playground for a brief period.
The state handed down a violation for failing to properly supervise Phoenix and Vilorio immediately removed her children.
The center had lost her trust. She now wishes she had removed them after her son’s injury.
“At this point, I wish I would have,” Vilorio said. “But then, when this other incident happened, I was done.”
The center’s owner, Gail Rolin, did not return a phone message seeking comment.
239 children hurt
Nothing is set in stone, but there appears to be one sure-fire way to attract a severe punishment: allow a child to get injured — or worse — on your watch.
Nearly half of all the major incidents involved a child being harmed in one way or another. Some hurt themselves while being improperly supervised. Some were hurt by other children. Others were injured or abused by day care staffers.
Sixty-two of the incidents left children with broken bones. The most common fracture was arms (18).
Four children suffered fractured skulls. An 8-month-old did so after falling off a diaper changing table. A 3-year-old fell from a swing onto concrete.
Parents should also worry about their children’s fingers.
The AJC uncovered at least 25 instances of someone slamming a door on children’s digits. Eleven suffered broken fingers, but seven had their fingers severed or amputated.
Eight child deaths have occurred.
At least two of them were caused by sudden infant death syndrome. Another two infants were found unresponsive or turning blue in their cribs.
One died and three were seriously injured when a Columbus day care provider couldn’t evacuate all nine children when a fire broke out in her home.
‘As fast as I could’
Mike Ratcliff praises God that his son didn’t make the list of the dead. He still has nightmares about the day his son almost drowned.
He remembers his wild ride to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston.
“I was just going as fast as I could in between traffic and around traffic, occasionally up on the shoulder,” the Snellville engineer said.
The day care center’s owner, Shannon Smith, rushed to the hospital, too. She and her husband promised they would close the center, A Kid’s World in Walnut Grove, if something like that ever happened again.
In the end, Smith didn’t even take the chance. She has not used the pool since the day John nearly drowned. It sits empty, surrounded by a padlocked fence.
“I think that speaks to how emotional that was for us,” said Smith’s husband, Tony Smith. “We’re not willing to even test that again.”
John, now 5 and in kindergarten, fully recovered from the ordeal, though he sometimes panics in water. The whole experience, however, still haunts his father.
“Once in a while, I’ll start thinking about it and just break down,” Ratcliff, 33, said. “I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like if the Lord didn’t intervene and give him back to us.”
How we got the story
The backbone for this story came from state documents obtained by the AJC about major incidents in Georgia day care centers. The newspaper turned the documents into a database and analyzed it for patterns, including how the state punished child care providers after such incidents. The AJC then requested similar information from numerous Southern states to see how Georgia stacked up.
Georgia versus other states
Georgia ranks fifth of six Southern states when it comes to revoking licenses of child care facilities that committed serious violations of state regulations during the years 2007 through 2010. But Georgia is more aggressive than most of the other states when it comes to assessing fines.
Providers -- Total fines -- Total value of fines -- License Revocations -- Revocations per 1,000 providers
Georgia -- 6,686 -- 343 -- $137,957 -- 27 -- 4.03
North Carolina -- 8,107 -- 140 -- $62,250 -- 115 -- 14.18
Kentucky -- ,876 -- 777 -- $549,200 -- 27 -- 9.38
Louisiana -- 1,802 -- * -- 0 -- 195 -- 108.2
Alabama -- 2,228 -- * -- 0 -- 2 -- 0.89
South Carolina -- 3,205 -- * -- 0 -- 64 -- 19.96
* This state does not assess fines for violation of child care regulations Sources: Child care regulation offices in each state.