State paid day cares that failed to meet standards

With that record, Harvesttime Higher Learning Academy in Riverdale has been classified as “noncompliant” with the state’s most important child care rules for the past four years in a row.

During the same period, the center has received something else from the state of Georgia: $2.5 million.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation shows that the state paid at least $355 million in subsidies over the past four years to day cares that, like Harvesttime, have failed to meet standards for child care. The two state agencies in charge of the money did little to prevent the payments from going into the hands of subpar day cares. In fact, one of the agencies said it didn’t clearly understand the other agency’s scoring system for day cares and did not use the information. And the agency with the rating system wasn’t using it to police its own subsidy program.

The money came from two programs. The most came from the Childcare and Parent Services Program, known as CAPS, which has been run by the state Department of Human Services and is largely funded by a federal grant. The state sends CAPS money directly to day cares to cover expenses for children from low-income families.

The other is the state’s celebrated pre-kindergarten program, which is funded by the purchase of lottery tickets. The Department of Early Care and Learning is responsible for the pre-k program.

In all, at least 17 percent of the $2 billion handed out by the state — nearly one out of every five dollars — went to day cares that the state determined fell short on health and safety.

Of that money, at least $230 million went to day care programs that had been deemed noncompliant multiple times, the investigation shows.

Both departments, DHS and DECAL, have revoked funding from a few child care providers, but not enough to put a dent in the amount of cash going to noncompliant day cares. In fiscal year 2011, for example, DHS yanked funding from 28 of the more than 6,600 programs receiving CAPS money. DECAL, meanwhile, pulled the money from 15 of the more than 1,900 providers in the pre-k program.

National child care advocate Patricia Cole called the AJC’s findings disturbing.

“Certainly, when you invest public funds, you have the expectation that at least programs are going to meet basic health and safety standards,” said Cole, the director of government relations for the national child advocacy group Zero to Three. “The short answer is, it’s of great concern that this money is going to programs that aren’t compliant.”

The commissioner of DHS, Clyde L. Reese, declined to speak with the AJC for this story but issued a statement that said, because of his limited time with the agency, he was not the appropriate person to respond to questions. Reese took over his post in January 2011.

In a phone interview, DECAL Commissioner Bobby Cagle, who started the same month as Reese, said the AJC’s findings concerned him and announced that changes are in store for his agency.

“In dollar terms, that’s a large amount of money,” Cagle said. “It very much bears us looking at more closely going forward, making sure we are investing those dollars in the best way possible.”

Cagle told the AJC that he is initiating an internal review of day care programs that have been noncompliant for at least three of the past four years to determine whether they should be shut down.

He also said he is considering, for both the pre-k and CAPS programs, automatic probation for day care programs that fall into noncompliance. If they don’t return to good standing, the child care providers could lose their funding or their licenses to operate. (The state is planning to move the CAPS program from DHS to DECAL this summer.)

“The focus is going to be on making sure that we’re not allowing multiple years of noncompliance without taking some decisive action,” Cagle said.

Raking in the dough

Harvesttime is one of 1,956 day cares to receive the money while being noncompliant. A third of those, or 656, were classified as noncompliant in multiple years.

Harvesttime also raked in the most money of all noncompliant child care programs in Georgia. (The newspaper only tallied money that child care programs received in the years they were classified as noncompliant.)

“Wow,” said Kiara Anthony, whose 2-year-old stepson attends Harvesttime. “I do not like that at all because there’s something better [the state] can be doing with the money. They can give it to someone who actually knows what they’re doing.”

Harvesttime, a nonprofit organization, is run out of the basement floor of a former Pentecostal church along Ga. 85, where parents shuttle kids in and out of the building’s back door.

Signs with Elmo and Big Bird cover the day care, adding a splash of Sesame Street to the gritty strip of four-lane in northern Clayton County. The center looks like a little oasis in a district where businesses are surrounded by barbed wire and people treat the roadside as a trash dump.

All of Harvesttime’s $2.5 million came from the CAPS program, the subsidy for low-income families.

Harvesttime’s CAPS money has quadrupled in the past four years — the same four years when it was labeled as noncompliant by the state. In 2008, Harvesttime took in $276,000. Last year, it received $1.07 million — more CAPS money than most day cares received over the past four years.

Harvesttime’s president, Wanda Porter, declined to talk in detail for this story, but repeatedly insisted that her center was compliant. She also declined to discuss any incidents that have occurred at her program.

“I’m not going to talk to you about anything,” Porter said by phone Wednesday morning. “I’m going to end this call.”

While DHS kept the CAPS money flowing into Porter’s day care, investigators from DECAL had their hands full with the center, according to its state file.

In July 2009, the state investigated allegations that a Harvesttime staff member had hit a child with a ruler.

“She kept hitting me with a ruler in the face and on my arm a lot, even when I went into the bathroom,” a 6-year-old boy said of a staffer, according to state files.

The investigation revealed a more widespread problem: that the center’s staff “routinely hit children with a ruler for inappropriate behavior,” documents show.

In interviews, one child after another told the state investigator that they had been hit, or had seen others hit.

Hits and kicks

Other day care owners defended collecting state money while also being labeled noncompliant.

The state classified Tim Van Krieken’s Kids ’R Kids #42 program in Austell as noncompliant for each of the past four fiscal years.

Van Krieken drew a violation for having an argument with a female staffer that was intense enough to scare the children, according to records. And his staff got into trouble for inciting physical violence between children.

“Statements revealed that when children hit other children, a staff member instructs them to hit the child back,” a 2010 report stated. “Interviews with children revealed that they were permitted to hit and kick another child.”

In those years, the day care collected $1.4 million from the pre-k and CAPS programs.

Asked whether noncompliant day cares deserved to get state money, Van Krieken said, “Well, quite frankly, I don’t think it’s fair to give people unemployment checks because they are too lazy to find a job. Yeah, sure it’s fair, if you’re going to put everything out there.”

Lloyd Van Dyke has owned Especially For Kids day care in Riverdale for 17 years. He also receives money from both programs.

Over the past four years, Especially For Kids was noncompliant for three before achieving good standing last year. In the noncompliant years, the center received $1.78 million — $1.16 million of it CAPS money.

Asked whether his day care deserved to get the money, Van Dyke said, “I can just tell you this: Once I knew I was in that [noncompliance] category, I took care of what I needed to do to get myself where I knew I needed to be. ... If I would have known what I know now, then I wouldn’t have been noncompliant for those three years.”

He also said it’s not his or other day care centers’ fault that they received state money while also being noncompliant. It’s the state’s job to make that decision, he said.

“I don’t think that’s fair to put that against the child care centers, because they did provide a service, whether it was poor, whatever,” Van Dyke said. “But it should have been taken care of by the [state], ‘OK, if you don’t get this going, you’re going to lose your [funding].’ ”

Limited knowledge

As it turns out, the Department of Human Services has limited knowledge of the Department of Early Care and Learning’s compliance system and, therefore, has not used it to screen subpar day cares from getting subsidies for the poor.

“I do not follow their system,” said Mona Jackson, who runs the CAPS program for DHS. “I knew they were exploring something. I knew they were excited about it. Where they took it, I don’t know.”

Jackson described the communication and cooperation between the agencies as lacking until the last year or so.

“I will say, beginning in 2011, we have a much better relationship with DECAL,” she said. “We have open information. We have sharing.”

Both agencies have safeguards in place to weed out subpar child care programs, but neither would have flagged all the noncompliant programs. As it stands, an annual noncompliance score does not automatically put the provider on probation.

Should it?

“The question you’re asking is a good one,” said Susan Adams, the assistant commissioner at DECAL in charge of the pre-k program. “And it is something that we’re looking at.”

At DHS, the staff boots low-performing day cares by tracking which ones get fined and reassessing whether they should keep getting CAPS money, Jackson said.

However, the number of day cares that get fined on a yearly basis pales in comparison to the number that land on the noncompliant list. In the 2011 fiscal year, DECAL issued 103 fines, but found 708 child care programs noncompliant.

Jackson also said day cares can get their funding pulled through complaints from the public that DHS confirms and, of course, when providers get their license to operate revoked.

Looking forward, Cagle said his agency is working on ways to identify those noncompliant day cares in both programs through data analysis, in addition to considering a program’s noncompliance as an automatic trigger for probation in CAPS and pre-k.

Cagle expects to have both programs under his control by July. The agency that oversees day care centers will now decide which ones get both CAPS and pre-k money.

Years of violations

Whether fewer noncompliant day care programs will get public money remains to be seen. A review of numerous day care programs’ files shows that the centers have violated DECAL’s rules for years, only to continue operating and collecting money.

S&T Developmental & Learning Center, a day care center in Augusta, is one of 29 programs that have been noncompliant for each of the past four years.

The center’s state file, obtained by the AJC, reveals that it has long been found to be in violation of state rules — and gotten away with it.

Records show that state officials have held at least four formal conferences with the center’s owner, Tasha Marrow, dating to 2004, to discuss her repeated failure to follow regulations. They also have twice fined S&T $299.

Marrow did not return numerous messages for comment.

When state inspectors visit Marrow’s center, they often find she doesn’t have enough staffers to care for the children, inspection records show.

Both of S&T’s fines, in 2005 and 2006, involved that issue.

But the problem continues.

Over the past four years, Marrow’s program has been routinely cited for its shortage of employees, including its last four inspections.

During that time, S&T collected $1.2 million from the state.

Digging deeper

This in-depth data analysis is the latest in a nine-month investigation into the state’s oversight of day care centers by the AJC. We previously reported about injuries and deaths in day cares, day cares’ failure to pay state fines and how many noncompliant child care programs have been operating in Georgia.

Pre-k, CAPS and millions of dollars

The AJC analyzed the two primary subsidy programs for day care providers. The Department of Early Care and Learning distributes lottery money to qualifying pre-kindergarten programs, many of which are housed in day cares. The Department of Human Services distributes money, much of it from a federal grant, to day cares to cover at least part of the expenses of children who can’t afford to attend. The first program is known as pre-k; the second is known as CAPS, for Childcare and Parent Services. The data below covers a four-year period, from the beginning of fiscal 2008 to the end of fiscal 2011.

Pre-K Program

606: Child care programs that received pre-k money in years they were noncompliant

$1.3 billion: Pre-k money that went to all child care programs during that time

$138 million: Pre-k money that went to noncompliant child care programs

11: Percentage of all pre-k money given to noncompliant child care programs

$90 million: Total that went to child care programs that have been noncompliant for at least two of the four years

CAPS Program

1,909: Child care programs that received CAPS money in years they were noncompliant

$823 million: CAPS money that went to all child care programs

$217 million: CAPS money that went to noncompliant child care programs

26: Percentage of all CAPS money given to noncompliant child care programs

$139 million: Total that went to child care programs that have been noncompliant for at least two of the four years

Combined data

559: Noncompliant day cares that received both subsidies

33: Noncompliant day cares that received more than $1 million from one or both subsidy programs

Sources: AJC analysis of data from the Georgia Department of Human Services and the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning

How we got the story

AJC staff writer Tim Eberly devoted four weeks to working with a massive amount of data obtained from the state through Open Records Act requests. No phone calls, no interviews — just culling 17,000 rows of data, one row at a time.

The analysis was based on three sets of data. One identified day care programs that had been scored as “noncompliant” by the state. The two others identified child care programs that received public subsidies, either for pre-kindergarten programs or for low-income children. Eberly then analyzed the data to identify which noncompliant programs had received public funding.

The data on noncompliant day cares and the data on pre-k funding came from the Department of Early Care and Learning, which regulates the state’s child care programs and also distributes pre-k money from the state lottery. The data on “CAPS,” or Childcare and Parent Services, came from the Department of Human Services, which provides money for low-income children to attend day care.

The Department of Human Services initially tried to charge the AJC $4,100 for its data, but the newspaper used the open records law in its favor to get the price down to $480.

Eberly completed the data analysis in collaboration with AJC staff writer M.B. Pell, who specializes in computer-assisted reporting.

Meet our reporter

Tim Eberly has been assigned to the AJC’s investigative team since April 2009. He started out focusing largely on county governments and school districts, but has recently branched out by investigating state agencies. He has been with the newspaper since 2007. He previously worked for newspapers in California, South Carolina and Montana. He is a native of Maryland.

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