January 19

Bill Nemitz: Child welfare is sad victim of Maine’s neglect

It takes upset parents, not DHHS, to shut down facilities that mistreat kids.

It was one of my mother’s finest moments.

Mom had just returned home after giving birth to the seventh of her eight children. During the few days she was in the hospital, she and my father had hired a seemingly nice older woman – we’ll call her Mrs. M – to keep our hectic household on track and maybe stick around for a day or two more to help Mom ease back into her Herculean maternal responsibilities.

Ah, but Mrs. M was not the grandmotherly type my dear parents thought she was. Left alone with us kids, the woman was a tyrant.

One night, while Dad was at the hospital, Mrs. M sent yours truly to my room without dinner. She’d found a broken picket on the fence around our patio and, despite our assurances that it had happened months ago, she decided on the spot that I was the culprit and thus I had to be punished. (My sister, God bless her, smuggled half of her dessert up to me on her way to bed.)

So many were our grievances against Mrs. M that Mom, walking through the door with her new baby in her arms, took one look at our faces and knew instantly that something was not right.

I remember trying not to cry as I quietly whispered to her how mean Mrs. M had been not just to me, but to all of us. The next thing we knew, Dad was carrying Mrs. M’s suitcase out to the car and, just like that, the woman was history.

I thought about that long-ago intrusion into an otherwise happy childhood last week as the news spread about the now-shuttered Sunshine Child Care & Preschool in Lyman.

The state-licensed day care center somehow managed to keep operating for months despite a laundry list of abusive acts against children, all documented by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Still, for reasons it has yet to clearly explain, DHHS did not see fit to immediately revoke the center’s license.

We’re talking about, according to the state’s own investigators, “a toxic and unsafe environment for children to be present in.”

It was a place where Cheryl Dubois, who operated the center along with her husband, Dan, had been observed pulling a high chair out from under a child who then fell – hitting a table on the way down and ending up with a bleeding and bruised chin.

It was a place where Dubois reportedly wrapped an infant so tightly in a blanket that the crying child’s eyes grew bloodshot, where she dealt with a child who bit another child by threatening to bite the aggressor herself, where she put soap in kids’ mouths and force-fed them when they balked at drinking their milk.

It was a place from which kids came home with bruises – always an accident, of course – and where confidential information about one family was openly shared with another.

Yet for all these red flags, discovered during a state investigation last year (the second in as many years), DHHS saw fit only to downgrade Sunshine Child Care & Preschool to a “conditional license.” That allowed it to keep operating, provided the Duboises cleaned up their act within a year.

“A conditional license is issued when there are deficiencies that are significant in nature related to overall quality of services being provided and safety of the children served and/or there have been repeat deficiencies over time and the licensee has not made the necessary corrections to come into full compliance with the licensing regulations,” explained DHHS spokesman John Martins in an email on Friday.

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