ELLSWORTH — The Department of Health and Human Services is investigating alleged violations at the Down East Family YMCA’s Moore Early Learning Center. The complaint was filed last month by a former teacher and her husband.
Allissia West of Dedham worked as a child-care teacher in the infant room while her 2½-year-old son Ezra attended the toddler program from June 1, 2020, to Jan. 29, 2021. On Jan. 29, she resigned and pulled Ezra out of the program. In mid-February, West reported alleged COVID-19 protocol violations through the state’s online reporting portal. Her husband, Shane West, filed a DHHS complaint, alleging 16 additional violations unrelated to COVID-19 protocol on Feb. 23.
Anyone can file a complaint with DHHS and a COVID-19 protocol complaint through the state portal, but the reporting of violations does not mean that they took place.
Complaint investigations are “based on the nature of the allegations and generally include an on-site inspection, staff interviews, parent/caregiver interviews, a record review and communication with relevant parties, like law enforcement, code enforcement and the state Fire Marshal’s Office,” DHHS Director of Communication Jackie Farwell told The American on March 2. She confirmed separate investigations into both complaints have been opened by DHHS.
The DHHS child-care inspector assigned to the Moore Center, Jodie Burckhard, inspected the center’s COVID-19 protocols following Allissia West’s complaint and recommended no changes at that time, Moore Center Director Shauna Esposito-Caldwell said on March 1.
“Our COVID protocols are very tight,” Esposito-Caldwell said. “We’re always updating based on state guidance.”
“When we get information like this, we do immediately reach out to our DHHS person,” DEFY Executive Director Peter Farragher added. “We work real hard at maintaining [COVID-19 protocols] properly.”
The alleged COVID-19 protocol violations include hands not being washed and a broken thermometer being used for daily temperature checks. Each of the 16 alleged violations that are unrelated to COVID-19 protocols refers to a DHHS regulation on operating child-care centers.
Since the center opened as a remote learning satellite center in September, parents of children attending preschool, after-school and remote learning programs could not enter the building, erasing the traditional walk with their child to the classroom and the chance to speak with teachers.
When the weather turned cold, parents were able to step inside the atrium for the drop-offs, while still maintaining physical distances as directed by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The allegations arose from Allissia West’s observations as an employee and as a parent of a child enrolled in the center. She began taking notes as her concerns grew, she said, and those concerns were allegedly brushed off by supervisors. One example was diaper changes. Per state regulations, they must be changed at least every two hours, but the complaint alleges “consistently diaper [changes] were over the two-hour mark.” West said she was scolded by her supervisor for changing infant diapers after naptime and before outdoor play, even though over two hours had passed since the last changing.
In addition, her son Ezra came home the first week bleeding from a diaper rash that took days to heal after a pull-up was used instead of his sensitive-skin diapers. West said she supplied the appropriate diapers and the teacher was informed of Ezra’s sensitivity.
West’s other observations of dirty classrooms, delayed deep cleaning of playmats, a lack of formal training and not being required to renew her certification as a daycare employee also are among the listed violations submitted to DHHS.
Incidents concerning the Wests’ son Ezra include him coming home with a fractured nose, while a “vague and inconsistent” incident report was only completed days after, upon the mother’s repeated request. The report also did not align with Ezra’s doctor’s findings, she said, which The American could not confirm because of health privacy laws. For all of Ezra’s scrapes and bruises “we had to do a lot of prodding to get answers and that didn’t seem fair,” she said in interviews with The American.
More upsetting was overhearing staff allegedly make fun of her son, who is special needs, and other children while discussing a staff training program. She said she was told, as an excuse, that the teacher had never worked in child care before, and that the incident was in the past.
“I think people need formal training, for sure,” she said. “They’re sending people in there blind. Half of these people have never even worked with kids.”
YMCA policy on “detrimental actions,” including “derogatory remarks to or about children or parents,” are to be reported to a supervisor, and maltreatment of a child is grounds for dismissal after an investigation is complete.
While information on staff and enrolled children is protected by privacy laws, Esposito-Caldwell told The American on Feb. 16, “I can always say that there are two perceptions to things. I can say if a staff person was perceived to be making fun of a child whether it be a staff child or any child, I would say that would not be met with lightly. That would not be ignored.”
New staff are given the employee handbook, which outlines appropriate behavior and language around and about children under their charge. They also serve a 90-day probationary period, Caldwell-Esposito said. She said staff numbers “ebb and flow” from 30 to 35 employees at the Center. Staff turnover is high across the child-care industry, she noted. “We’re continually bringing in new staff to maintain [state-mandated teacher-child] ratios.”
Allissia West said that as she communicated her violation concerns to supervisors —as is required by YMCA policy — and attended many parent-staff meetings concerning Ezra, treatment from supervisors and staff to her as an employee plummeted. In addition, Ezra has showed a change in temperament since attending the Moore Center, she said. “We‘re investigating why Ezra’s so upset and so ‘handy,’ but we have to assume these were things he observed and learned from the older kids.”
Shane West said that if his wife had not been an employee, he would have been completely in the dark as to Ezra’s care because of COVID-19 protocols keeping parents out of the building. Still, he “felt brushed off whenever I tried to bring something up as a parent. I was fortunate that my wife worked there. That was the only way I learned about anything.”
DHHS “strives to complete its investigations within 35 days,” Farwell said. She said that if DHHS feels children’s health and safety are in jeopardy, it may issue an order of closure for up to 10 days.
“Child Care Licensing [Department] uses a risk-based approach to monitoring and inspecting licensed providers,” Farwell said. “When actively under investigation, Child Care Licensing is closely monitoring the provider for compliance with regulations while concurrently assessing the specific complaint allegations.”
YMCA Director Farragher said on March 1 that he sees this as an opportunity to improve “and keep moving forward.”
“Our number one priority is the kids,” he said.
On Allissia’s West’s part, she said she would like the Y to “take responsibility for not doing their job, essentially, not really keeping kids safe or parents informed.”
“I hope parents can take this information and be a little more in the know about things, ask more questions,” she said. “As parents, we need to be better about asking what’s going on.” She and Ezra are both now working at/attending a Blue Hill area child-care center.
The Y also operates a child-care facility on Beechland Road that is not named in either complaint.
American Managing Editor Cyndi Wood is a member of the Down East Family YMCA board.