Oklahoma day cares: Picking the right day care facility for your child using online ratings system

TULSA - Finding good day care is critical for working parents.

Oklahoma implemented the Reaching for the Stars system (http://bit.ly/starsservice) to improve quality, but the stars at some facilities could give parents a false sense of security.

Parent Amanda Paris looks forward to spending time with her children after a long day at work. Since she and her husband John both have careers outside the home, they depend on day care.

"It's so important because I can't be with my kids during the day," Amanda Paris said. "So, the people whose hands I'm leaving it in -- I want them to be really, really good at what they do."

To find the best for their daughters, three-year-old Amelia and 10-month-old Stella, Amanda and John turned to the Department of Human Services childcare locator online. Parents can type in their zip code to find day cares nearby and check the facility's record.

WEBSITE - DHS Oklahoma Child Care Locator (http://bit.ly/childcarefinder)

"It was important to me that we go to a place that had a good star rating and didn't have any major violations," said John Paris.

Their day care center, Day Schools, earned a three-star rating.

CRITERIA FOR THE FOUR LEVELS OF RATINGS

-- One-Star programs meet minimum licensing requirements.

-- One-Star Plus programs meet additional quality criteria which includes: additional training, reading to children daily, parent involvement and program assessment.

-- Two-Star programs meet additional quality criteria or are nationally accredited.

-- Three-Star programs meet additional quality criteria and are nationally accredited.

To earn a star rating, facilities must hire a director specially trained in child development, bring in added, trained staff and offer a top-notch curriculum suited to each age group. The star program is designed to set the bar higher than the minimum standards required for a license.

Amanda and John relied on the stars ranking to choose their day care center.

However, they did not realize the DHS online childcare locator offers parents a list of inspections and complaints, without any details, for only the previous 12 months.

Reducing stars ratings requires a 24-month review of cases involving "numerous, repeated and serious non-compliances for licensing."

"It's a little surprising. I thought it was an overall picture of the violations if any had accrued," Amanda said.

Star ratings are based on staff and programs -- not violations.

2NEWS reviewed the online records of all three-star and two-star childcare homes and centers in Tulsa County - all 240 of them.

DHS records reveal three-star centers with multiple violations. Cornerstone, which cares for 95 children at its facility in east Tulsa, had 14 violations in 12 months. The violations included fire safety, supervision and transportation.

There are also two-star centers with dozens of violations.

From April 2012 to March 2013, DHS licensing records indicate 34 violations at the Special Kids Learning Center, a facility that cares for children with special needs and behavioral issues. According to the online records, non-compliance issues included behavior and guidance, fire safety, and provider training.

Royalty Learning Academy, another two-star rated center, had 33 violations on record in the past twelve months. DHS licensing inspectors cited the facility, which oversees up to 45 children, for such non-compliance issues as supervision, hazards, fire safety, transportation and records.

When asked about stars facilities with multiple violations, Catherine Woldridge, Regional Programs Manager, Child Care Services division of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services told 2NEWS, "Depending on what the violations are, it may not be a violation of their stars criteria. But when a facility has that many non-compliances that ought to be a red flag to parents that they need to take it a step further."

With 22 years experience in child care licensing, Woldridge watches over the worst complaints and violations. She believes too many parents are relying solely on the online records, and DHS inspectors, for a clear picture of a daycare facility. By law, child care licensing inspectors are only required to inspect a home or center three times a year.

"They pick out a childcare -- some parents don't even go past that front door," Woldridge said. "Some day cares have drive-thru's where you can pull up and drop your child off. They trust that everything is good when they leave their child there."

She suggests parents visit the home or facility they are considering unannounced, talk with staff and observe the children. Then dig deeper.     

"We really want parents to read the whole file because you can see the rest of the story there," Woldridge added.

Parents will only find the whole file at DHS offices. The agency inspects and maintains files on all licensed day care facilities in Oklahoma. Parents simply need to call for an appointment and, in most cases, can view the files within 24-hours.

Currently,

the online childcare locator provides only two pages of facility monitoring reports for most day care centers and homes.

In addition, parents who check the site now will not be able to review inspection reports written after April 1 because the division is currently bringing a new computer system online.

DHS officials say a parent will get a clear and in-depth picture of the day care provider when they make time to inspect the paper file in person. Files on homes and facilities with multiple violations, complaints and inspections are three to four inches thick. In addition, a child care licensing specialist is there to discuss the file and answer questions parents may ask about the records.

2NEWS contacted the three day care facilities with multiple violations for comment.

At Cornerstone, a spokeswoman named Donna said, "We haven't had any [violations] since November of last year. We got rid of a few employees - which was where a lot of the problem was coming from. Once we got that taken care of, we haven't had any violations." Staff would not provide her last name when asked.

Special Kids Learning Center executive director Joanne Williams invited 2NEWS to come inspect its brand new operation.

"We now have a new facility, a new director and a new staff that have made a huge difference. A lot of the issues were environmental and we have taken care of those with our new facility," Williams said. "Our parents love us. We have had some of the same children for 10 years or more. The parents support us and are very happy with how we care for our kids." A number of parents contacted 2NEWS to voice their support.

Royalty Learning Academy did not respond to repeated voice messages requesting comment on the center's violations.

When it comes to finding quality care, John Paris suggests, "Do your homework. Do all the research you can."
    
He and his wife check on their children often and talk to the staff on a daily basis. They chose carefully, because they know what is at stake ... their two little girls.

"It is such a huge decision," Amanda insisted. "Picking that daycare can mean all the way from life and death all the way to how they get educated."

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