HOUSTON -- When it comes to child care in Texas, the mission of state regulators is simple -- to protect the health, safety and well-being of children. But an I-Team analysis of inspection records discovered hundreds of cases where the Department of Family and Protective Services left kids in harm’s way, despite having identified serious safety violations in the child-care home.
It took state inspectors an entire year to verify that batteries were installed in smoke detectors at one child-care home. At another, it took 18 months to check back on the primary caregiver’s expired CPR training certificate. And more than two years went by to verify if criminal background checks were done at another home.
In all, the I-Team analyzed more than 30,000 violations at more than 2,000 registered child-care homes in Harris County, and a dozen other surrounding counties, over the past five years. The records show homes with chronic, sometimes life-threatening violations, are given a long leash by state regulators to stay open and care for kids.
They are the same type of facilities where four toddlers died, and three were seriously injured in a February fire. Day care provider Jessica Tata faces criminal charges in the case for allegedly going shopping after leaving the children alone with a hot pan of oil on the stove.
"It's very hard not to be able to grab your grandchild and give her a squeeze and a hug because it hurts," said Tracy Storms. Her 2-year-old granddaughter McKayla is recovering from third-degree burns from the fire. Her grandson Shomari died in the blaze.
Storms said she’s worried and outraged that something else, something very similar might happen again.
"I'm very appalled at these findings,” Storms said. “Our children are in danger."
The I-Team found a troubling trend of fire safety violations in the state inspection records. Over the past five years, the state cited at least once:
• 23 percent of all registered child-care homes for not having fire extinguishers easily available.
• 29 percent of all registered child-care homes for not doing a monthly fire drill as law requires.
• 30 percent of all registered child-care homes for non-working or non-existing smoke detectors.
So who are some of the worst violators?
Carolyn Jones tops the list at 7641 Caddo in Northeast Houston. Her registered child-care home had 121 total violations over the past five years.
I-Team: “Are kids safe here?”
Jones: “Yes, they are.”
The I-Team also examined the safety at homes caring for more children than state law allows.
Dinita Morris is the registered child-care home provider at 12618 Greenspoint Drive.
I-Team: “Why do you have a history of taking care of more kids than you're supposed to?”
Morris: “I don't know, talk to license.”
State child-care licensing cited Morris six different times over the past five years, for being over the child/caregiver permitted ratio. Once it was 14 kids, including three infants. Later, it was 11 kids, with four of them infants.
And each time Morris was alone—the only caregiver in the home.
“Imagine yourself taking care of that many children,” said Melanie Rubin, with the non-profit group Building Better Beginnings Coalition.
"It's impossible. Not because the intention is not there, or the will to do it, it's just physically impossible to be at so many places at one time," Rubin said.
But how did the state handle the Morris case? One time, it let her off the hook, when an inspector wrote: “This was corrected during the inspection when some of the children went home for the day." A Department of Family and Protective Services spokesperson said inspectors revisited the home a week later to verify it was still in compliance.
“I mean, that's ludicrous," Rubin said. "The standards are bare safety minimums. If a provider is not able to comply with them, they should not be in business.”
And just how bare bones are standards in Texas?
Rubin: “To be a hairdresser in Texas, you have to have 1500 hours of training.”
I-Team: “And for a child-care home?”
Rubin: “It's 20 hours. It’s completely upside down.”
When the I-Team visited other repeat violators, that lack of training was evident, like with provider Cynthia Joseph at 16815 Quail Crest Court in Missouri City.
Joseph: "If I didn't know [about the standards], how was I supposed to go about it?”
I-Team: “What do you mean you didn't know how? You open up a child care and you don't know the rules?”
Joseph: “They told me about it."
Joseph told us the she only knew she was in violation, when the state told her she was. And that has happened 116 times in the past five years.
Joseph: "But they all [have] been corrected.”
I-Team: “And that makes it OK?”
Joseph: “It don't make it OK, it was wrong in the past, but it's all corrected now.”
I-Team: “Do you think the state is giving you to long a leash to operate?”
Joseph: “Not really."
But consider the big picture. Over the past five years in Harris and a dozen surrounding counties, it took state inspectors almost a month, on average, just to verify a violation is corrected. And in some cases, it took six months, a year, or even two years to verify corrections of deficiencies the state weighted as “high,” or the most serious type of violation on the books.
"Can the department do a better job? Absolutely," said Sul Ross, who ran state child-care licensing for 14 years in the Houston area.
But Ross, who now educates the public on child care with the non-profit Collaborative for Children, said shutting a problem home down is much harder than you might think.
"All of that process can take many months, or even years,” Ross said. “Very frustrating."
So what's the problem?
Ross said the law itself.
"There's so much weight on protection of businesses,” Ross said. “It really works against protecting the health and safety of the children.”
The Department of Family and Protective Services declined repeated requests for an on-camera interview. In a written statement, the agency said the data indicates “a regulatory system that is working,” and also wrote that 99 percent of all violations have been corrected. It did not address the delays in verifying corrective action, claiming it needed more time to do an in-depth analysis of its own.
As for providers Carolyn Jones, Dinita Morris and Cynthia Joseph, all three had since come into compliance with state standards as of today.
Meanwhile, Tracy Storms said the family is struggling to pay for medical bills and a gravestone for Shomari. You can make a tax-deductible donation to the Shomari and MaKayla Dickerson Fund at any Wells Fargo bank branch.