Columbia, SC (WLTX) -- A two-month investigation by WLTX has uncovered what parents should know about keeping their children safe in South Carolina daycares.
WLTX found daycares that had several issues noted by the Department of Social Services, while others had none. There is a variety: everything from expired milk to a child wandering out of a facility without the knowledge of child care providers.
LINK: DSS Child Care Search
The DSS online child care search is a frequently updated database that yields information about complaints and deficiencies for every licensed daycare in the state, both commercial facilities and at-home daycares.
DSS visits the commercial daycares regularly for unannounced visits. At-home daycares are not visited unless a complaint has been made. When any complaint is made against any daycare, an unannounced visit is made by DSS to determine whether the complaint is founded. DSS also follows up to make sure any deficiencies and complaints have been rectified, in an effort to keep children safe.
Any complaint that is made against a daycare will be listed on the website, even if the complaint was not founded by DSS. You will also be able to see if an issue is "pending" or "resolved" in the eyes of DSS.
Under each headline, however, can be a variety of issues. The line tells a story that requires a deeper look.
"If you're looking at health and safety violations, it could be something as simple as frayed carpet, or it could be a big hole in the wall," explained Leigh Bolick, Director of Child Care Services for DSS.
She says across the state, there are cases where a daycare must be shut down, but it is only done after DSS has tried to help the facility improve. "We have had about 41 facilities that have been shut down since 2010, and generally, they are shut down after a long series of violations."
The violations listed by DSS in their online database, which provides only the last 36 months of deficiencies and complaints, range from zero for some day cares to more than a hundred in others.
News19 viewed hundreds of Department of Social Services reports online for Midlands child care facilities. Then, we went deeper into DSS files, finding a variety of DSS citations. We visited dozens of daycares, following up with phone calls, to ask for on-camera interviews.
Of the dozens we approached, Smart Kidz in Irmo was the only daycare that spoke with News19 on camera. LaVern Nesmith is the Owner and Director of the facility, which has received citations for 32 deficiencies and complaints since the beginning of 2010.
One complaint against Smart Kidz was made by a parent who was given the wrong bottle from the daycare. The 11-week old baby was supposed to drink breast milk. Nesmith admits the errors, saying the teacher in the classroom knew which bottle to give the baby, but it was an error made by a manager who was trying to help.
"We were in the process of labeling the bottles, and we were helping the person in the baby room, and one of us, someone else, labeled it twice," Nesmith said.
She says she has taken steps to avoid the problem since. She understood why the parent was upset, but says the child never drank the wrong milk. She also says her facility works hard to provide quality care to children and their families, and parents are always welcome inside at any time of day.
During the two-month investigation, WLTX found that dozens of daycares in the state of South Carolina have been cited for staff records issues.
"No provider should be employing a caregiver who does not have the proper, appropriate educational requirements or background checks," Bolick said.
Staff records were one of several recurring issues that made DSS place Bayview Baptist Church Child Development Center in Richland County on a corrective action plan. The daycare closed its doors last week voluntarily and a note was on the door. The director of the facility was not available to speak to News19.
There are also issues that DSS looks for that may be more visible to parents. Examples from DSS reports at facilities since 2010 include peeling and chipping paint, exposed wires, broken fences and doors, and refrigerators, sink water and even entire buildings that are not being kept at the proper temperature.
While DSS specialists are on site, they recorded various other issues at Midlands daycares. One caregiver watched a soap opera on television with children present. Another was seen listening to inappropriate music. One daycare had no milk on site for children, and another had milk that had expired weeks earlier.
Smiling Faces on Kay Street in Richland County was cited three times by DSS because the telephone had been disconnected or was no longer in service. The facility was also cited in 2008 and 2010 by DHEC for needing a lead paint risk assessment. The operator told us they are closing the facility down, but may open in a new location.
At Gateway Academy on Columbiana Drive, a child was bitten by another child seven times in four months. According to DSS reports, the biter was not properly supervised to control the issue. Other deficiencies at the site, listed on a complaint form, included a daycare provider who forced a child's head on the mat, and a caregiver observed using profane language towards children.
At Southeast Child on Elmtree Road in Richland County, DSS says a teacher was observed yelling and cursing at children in the four-year-old class. DSS states the teacher is no longer working there.
At Conyers Early Learning Center on Columbia College Drive, DSS says a bus driver used profanity towards a six-year-old and made her get off the bus in the middle of the road, and continued to use "humility language" at the child again when he picked her up.
DSS says a four year old was injured at the La Petite Academy on Platt Springs Road, and the caregiver was not aware of how the injury occurred.
The daycare declined an on-camera interview, but released this statement to News19:
La Petite Academy is committed to providing our students with the highest quality care in a safe, nurturing environment. We have strict policies and procedures in place to ensure the safety and well-being of our children and understand the trust parents place in us every day.
We strive to meet - if not exceed - all of the licensing requirements set forth by the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) and value their expertise as we quickly work to make any necessary improvements. Additionally, our teachers participate in ongoing training in all areas of child care and development so that they can provide our students with a world-class educational program.
We understand that selecting a child care provider is one of the most difficult decisions a family has to make. La Petite Academy encourages families to not only choose a state licensed facility but to visit a number of providers to find the one that best fits their needs. We assist parents in this important decision through child care resources, research and checklists which highlight additional factors to consider. Additional information and recommendations can also be obtained by contacting your local DSS office.
We are proud to serve hundreds of families across South Carolina and thank them for their confidence in our teachers, curriculum and academy. We will continue to work hard to enhance our program offering, ensuring local families have a safe, secure choice for their child's care.
Supervision issues were often cited in Midlands daycares in DSS reports.
At Children's World on Two Notch Road in Columbia, DSS reported an afterschool child was left alone on a bus, infants were left unsupervised on the changing table, and two boys, aged two, were alone in the restroom.
At the Sunshine House on St Andrews Road, DSS founded a complaint of improper supervision. DSS said a 5-year-old child climbed the fence on the playground and left the facility without being noticed by the caregiver.
There are 48 licensed Sunshine House daycares in the state of South Carolina. Some have dozens of complaints, others have few or none. The child care provider declined an on-camera interview, but released this statement:
For more than 35 years, the Sunshine House, Inc. has provided early care and education for young children in safe, licensed learning centers. We work with local regulatory agencies throughout nine states to follow guidelines, and meet or surpass the state licensing standards. We look forward to continuing our partnership with these agencies to protect the safety and well-being of all children in our care.
DSS says many children are in safe, healthy and educational environments. It's up to the parent to determine the best fit.
Bolick said, "When we see caregivers really taking time with each child and speaking in a kind tone, and being positive, to me, that's the most enriching environment you can put your child in."
To find the right fit, it is not as easy as an internet search and a referral. A parent must understand what DSS has found, and also get the complete story from the daycare.
Bunnie Ward, Director of Early Education at United Way, says you must ask questions beforehand, do your homework, and be diligent and observant once your child is enrolled.
"Is it a clean place to be? Does it appear that staff are attentive to hygiene and proper diaper changing?" Ward explained.
Start looking and planning early and ask a lot of questions. If you call 211, you will be connected to United Way's call center with daycare experts. United Way suggests every parent learn to "S.H.O.P."
- S-SUPERVISED (Will my child be supervised?)
- Are children watched at all times?
- Are adults warm and welcoming?
- Do adults avoid yelling and spanking?
- H-Healthy (Is this a safe and healthy place for my child?)
- Does everyone wash hands?
- Are all children immunized?
- Have adults had criminal background checks?
- Number of children per teacher?
- Are supplies and medicines locked?
- O-Operated Well (Is the program managed well?)
- Is the program working on achieving the highest level of quality in the state?
- Are there written job descriptions and personnel policies?
- Is the staff evaluated annually?
- Are parents asked to evaluate the program?
- P-Parent Friendly (Does the program work well with parents?)
- Am I welcome at any time my child is in care?
- Does the program have regular parent meetings?
- Does the program have policies and handbooks?
United Way suggests parents look into the education the caregivers have, and also the education they provide to children. In addition to being fed nutritional snacks and meals, children should be held while bottle-feeding, and allowed to crawl and walk on safe surfaces. Calling 211 can connect parents to more information about what a daycare should provide.
"A child care center that is of higher quality or that is a good fit for children will welcome parents asking questions, will welcome parents visiting, and is a very parent-friendly sort of center," Ward said.
Parents can also ask for DSS files, something that DSS says they rarely do. Online at LINK: DSS Child Care Search you can search the facility and find out generic information regarding deficiencies and complaints. From there, ask DSS to provide you an opportunity to view the details of the file. Then, follow up with questions to the child care facility to get the caregivers' side of the story.
Experts agree, the best approach is for parents to ask a lot of questions and make an educated decision about where their child will spend hours under another person's care.