WECT Investigates: Knowing your daycare

See if your child’s daycare has been cited
Updated: Jul. 29, 2019 at 1:43 PM EDT
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SOUTHEASTERN N.C. (WECT) - An infant kidnapped at a Bladen County daycare facility earlier this month was a startling reminder of what can go wrong when a child is left in someone else’s care. But it’s hardly the only incident at a local daycare in recent years to leave parents concerned.

A WECT review of all daycares in our five county viewing area uncovered 23 facilities had administrative actions taken against them by the state in the past three years. This does not include hundreds, if not thousands of violations found that did not lead to an administrative action.

The North Carolina Division of Child Development and Early Education (NCDEE) makes annual, unannounced compliance visits to 6,000 child care facilities statewide. They may make additional drop in visits as time allows.

If they are alerted by a member of the public of a possible violation, they will also initiate a visit to the daycare center to investigate that complaint.

Last fall, a daycare worker at Adventure World on Longleaf Hills Drive in Wilmington allegedly choked a child, resorting in a criminal warrant being taken out for her arrest.

The state issued Adventure World a Notice of Administrative Action, which detailed the incident in question:

“On October 12, 2018, Daphne Smiling, staff member, grabbed a nine-year-old child by the arm and pulled the child from a chair onto the floor. While the child was on the floor, the staff member put both of her hands on the back of the child’s neck, held the child on the floor, and choked the child for approximately one (1) minute,” the report reads, explaining that such behavior violated state law for child discipline. “In addition… the staff member called the child ‘trash’ and used profanity in the presence of children,” which is also against the law.

As a result, Smiling was disqualified by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the NCDEE, from providing childcare in the future.

WECT has learned that the Wilmington Police Department has been unable to locate Smiling to serve the criminal warrants against her, so she has yet to be arrested or stand trial for Assault on a Child Under 12. If you know where Smiling is, please call the WPD at (910) 343-3609, or you can anonymously text a tip. Text TIP708 and send the message to CRIMES (274637).

The child’s mother told WECT she reported the incident to authorities after learning about it from her son. She initially agreed to an interview with us, saying she was upset over what happened and the way it was handled, but later canceled.

Gary Pace, the administrator of the facility did not return a phone call requesting information about the incident. Adventure World was fined $500 and ordered to revise their discipline policy. Adventure World appealed the administrative action.

The state also took administrative action against Adventure World for an incident at its other Wilmington facility on South 16th Street. That facility received a written warning and another $250 fine after a staffer retaliated against a child in the fall of 2017.

According to the state report, a ten-year-old child threw an empty 64 oz. orange juice bottle at a staff member, hitting him in the head. The staff member in turn threw the bottle back at the child, hitting him in the head. When the child left the classroom in tears, the staff member followed him out of the room, leaving the rest of the class unattended.

In addition to the civil penalty, the state report indicates the staffer was terminated over this.

WECT previously reported a serious incident at First Baptist Church in Leland’s day care facility, Leland Christian Academy. Staff member Andrew Hodge was arrested in February 2018 for indecent liberties with a minor and sexual exploitation of a child. A state report says Hodge participated in inappropriate activity with a 4-year-old child on the playground.

Hodge was no longer employed by First Baptist Church at the time of his arrest. NCDEE has disqualified him from working in North Carolina child care facilities.

Hodge is now in prison for kidnapping and numerous counts of sexual exploitation of a minor. The state report indicates that some of his criminal charges were unrelated to the incident at the church.

Other cases we found at local child care centers did not result in the termination of a staff member, but were still worrisome for the children involved.

A two-year-old at the Children’s Learning Center II on Medical Center Drive received second degree burns to their chest, back and neck after spilling hot coffee on themselves that a staff member had inadvertently left within the child’s reach while attending to another child. That incident in August 2017 resulted in a $500 civil penalty for the facility.

The Childcare Network on Wilshire Boulevard received a written warning after a child ingested an unknown number of nicotine lozenges that a parent inadvertently left in their child’s book bag. At some point on the morning of May 23, 2016, the child retrieved their bag from a cubby and began eating the lozenges. The daycare staff did not realize there was a problem until the child began vomiting, and had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Many of the state actions involved issues that were more administrative in nature, but still potentially serious. Sanitation issues, failure to document safe sleep checks, and paperwork errors were all cited locally. State inspectors also took action against local facilities for inadequate staff to child ratios, and failure to document a proper criminal background check on an employee before they began working with children.

There are 154 licensed child care facilities in New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender, Columbus and Bladen counties. We have an interactive map below that highlights the 23 local facilities where the state has taken administrative action of some kind since 2016:

At Little Hands Daycare in Bladenboro, where 4-month-old Lonnisha Renee Askew was allegedly kidnapped by her birth mother (who’d lost custody of the child) July 15, NCDEE had taken action as recently as this year. The state issued a written warning after finding 33 violations during 3 visits, mostly involving mandatory child care training requirements, and completing a written plan for maintaining compliance.

Anita Hall, the owner of the facility, declined WECT’s request for an interview after Lonnisha was found, and expressed frustration that her daycare center had been unfairly painted in an unflattering light.

She said over the phone that “the infractions [previously cited by the state] did not impact the care of children.” She indicated some parents had pulled their children out of her facility because of the bad publicity.

Lonnisha was ultimately returned safely to her foster mother, and her birth mother, 22-year-old Juanita Renee Askew, was taken into custody.

No child care provider in our area had their license suspended or revoked in the last three years, the most severe administrative action the state can take. However, 76 child care providers in other parts of North Carolina have had their licenses revoked, and another 47 had their licenses suspended for severe infractions during that time period.

Tonight on WECT News at 6, we’ll take an in depth look at some of the most serious incidents at local child care facilities, including an incident which never made the news before, but resulted in criminal charges for the day care worker.

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