On its website, the Tumble Bugs Day School in Norwalk boasts a "highly experienced, nurturing" staff that serves infants and toddlers in a "stimulating setting."
But a review of state Department of Public Health records shows the child care center has had numerous complaints and citations in recent years for lapses in supervision that have injured and traumatized young children.
In 2010, the center failed to notify parents when a balancing board fell on a toddler. The same year, DPH cited the center for failing to take action against a staff member who restrained a toddler on a cot by "holding down his head and body" and then falsely reported that a scratch on the boy's face was an accident.
Then, in 2011, two children came forward to report that a preschool teacher had sexually abused them during nap time -- an allegation that led to the April 2012 arrest of 44-year-old Harold Meyers, who worked at the center in 2008 and 2009. DPH investigated the case last year, but determined the center had made oversight changes and that no further action was needed.
Soon after, DPH was summoned again -- this time on a complaint from parents that their 15-month-old son was bitten by other children on three separate occasions, without them being notified.
Despite the multiple safety violations, DPH has allowed Tumble Bugs to remain open, with minimal consequences.
The situation is not unusual in Connecticut, where child care center license revocations are rare and oversight is lax. In the last three years, DPH has revoked only two center licenses out of the 1,505 centers in the state -- a far lower rate than other states.
A review of two dozen cases handled by DPH indicates that providers are routinely allowed to continue operating after repeated health and safety violations, including abuse.
The lack of strong enforcement is consistent with the findings in a 2013 national report that places Connecticut child care center oversight in the lowest 5 percent of states. Connecticut was ranked 42nd overall, and 48th in oversight, in a national ranking by Child Care Aware of America, a leading child care advocacy group.
The rankings are based on benchmarks related to program requirements and oversight.
Connecticut is one of only nine states that do not conduct at least yearly inspections of child care centers; one of six states that do not require any initial health and safety training for providers; and one of four states that do not require program directors to have at least a high school diploma or GED.
Unlike 23 other states, Connecticut does not require that background checks of child care staff include a check of the sex-offender registry.
Even in an area where Connecticut meets national recommendations, concerns have been raised. A state audit in October found that the DPH was not verifying that the required criminal background checks were being done on all child care employees -- posing a risk that children were coming into contact with "unsuitable individuals," the auditors said.
While Connecticut has some of the best teacher-to-child ratios in the country, the approach to oversight has been "lackadaisical," said state Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford.
"We have these very good standards, but then we don't monitor them," said Bye, a longtime advocate for quality child care. While certain school readiness programs are held to high quality standards, she added, "If the average parent walked through a lot of day care centers, I don't think they'd be thrilled."
The DPH inspects child care centers once every two years, far less frequently than the Child Care Aware of America recommendation of quarterly inspections. The national report also shows that Connecticut's inspection caseload is the third highest in the country: The ratio of one inspector to 217 cases is triple the caseload recommended by the National Association for Regulatory Administration, which directs a maximum average workload per inspector of 50 to 60 child care facilities.
Although Connecticut ranks better in regulating smaller family day care homes, a recent federal audit of 20 such homes found significant lapses in health and safety oversight of those licensees, as well.
Few lose licenses
A review of Connecticut's enforcement actions in the last three years shows that fewer than 1 percent of child care centers lost their licenses because of revocation, suspension or voluntary surrender, and less than 3 percent were subject to DPH consent orders, the strongest form of discipline, when violations were found. Only two of Connecticut's 1,500 licensed centers (.13 percent) have had their licenses revoked in the three years; another 10 centers (.6 percent) voluntarily surrendered their licenses.
In contrast, Oklahoma's Department of Human Services revoked 33 of 1,666 center licenses from 2010 to 2012, 15 times the rate of Connecticut. Similarly, North Carolina revoked 37 center licenses and suspended seven others in the past three years, six times the rate in Connecticut. And the Florida Department of Children and Families revoked 44 of 4,700 child care facility licenses in just the last two fiscal years, or seven times Connecticut's rate.
Oklahoma, which ranks second nationally in child care center oversight, has 104 field inspectors for child care; Connecticut has a total staff of 25 for a similar number of centers.
Nick Vucic, senior government affairs associate for Child Care Aware, said weak oversight guts strong program standards. In many states, oversight has been strengthened after a child care death or tragedy.
"It's a reactive type of system. You leave it open for these incidents to occur -- and when they do, that's when you see states adopt changes," he said.
Connecticut's oversight system hasn't changed since 2009, when a report by the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut found an "alarming number of significant health and safety concerns" at child care centers, weak oversight and inconsistent reporting by inspectors.
State officials said they are working to strengthen both program quality and monitoring. A new Office of Early Childhood will take over the licensing of facilities from DPH next year.
The state was counting on a federal Race to the Top grant to fund improvements to child care quality and to launch a quality-rating system that would grade providers on a four-tiered scale. But Connecticut lost out on the grant last week. In its application, the state had proposed to add 16 inspectors, increase inspections to once a year, and make unspecified "regulatory and policy changes to improve licensing requirements."
The state still plans to pursue a quality-rating system, but similar systems in other states have taken years to develop.
Myra Jones-Taylor, director of the Office of Early Childhood, could not be reached for comment. But DPH officials said that for now, they are doing the best they can with the rules and resources they have.
"DPH supports increased monitoring of licensed child care programs to improve regulatory compliance and (and identify lapses) before children are negatively impacted," said Bill Gerrish, a spokesman for the agency. Similarly, DPH supports increasing training and education for providers, which Gerrish said would require legislative action.
On enforcement, he said the agency uses a number of methods, such as consent orders and corrective action plans, to protect children and ensure compliance with regulations.
The two Connecticut child care centers that have had their licenses revoked were smaller centers: Cookie Club in Wallingford, a group day care, and Colorful World Child Day Care in Bridgeport.
Cookie Club's license was revoked in June 2012 after repeated DPH citations for lapses in supervision and safety, including hazards such as unlocked toxins and rusty swings, and inadequate record keeping.
DPH revoked Colorful World's license in 2011 after finding violations deemed "threatening, neglectful and/or frightening treatment" of children, including a young child who was left outside alone in the cold. Records show that DPH had given Colorful World's operator conditional approval to open the center in August 2010, despite having revoked her family day care license in 2007 because of "numerous violations."
Yet a review of records indicates that other centers with similar violations have been allowed to continue operating.
Tumble Bugs was cited multiple times by DPH from 2007 to 2010 for violations including inappropriate discipline, failure to report abuse, excess group sizes and indoor hazards. But DPH did not issue the center a consent order until February 2011. The order, which cited the center for the incidents, including holding down the toddler and group size violations, carried a $4,000 fine and requirements that the center hire consultants and conduct staff training.
The owner of Tumble Bugs did not respond to requests for comment.
Training standards lacking
Contributing to Connecticut's 48th place ranking on oversight are its lax requirements for initial training of child care providers.
The state is one of a few that require only an initial orientation of providers, but no training in health and safety, discipline or child development. It does require annual training, as most states do. Child Care Aware of America recommends a minimum of 40 hours of initial training.
Connecticut is not among the 31 states that post inspection reports online, nor the 40 states that require centers to have regular communication with parents. It also does not use licensing fees to directly support licensing oversight, as many other states do.
In addition to child care centers, the DPH licenses and inspects family day care homes. Nationally, Connecticut ranks 15th in program requirements and oversight of family homes -- better than the ranking for childcare centers. But its ratio of inspectors to programs -- 1:332 -- is six times the recommended level, and the third highest in the country, according to a 2012 report by Child Care Aware of America.
The state inspects family homes just once every three years; does not check staff against the sex-offender registry; and requires only minimal initial training in first aid, instead of the 24 hours of recommended training in child development, health and safety.
As with child care centers, enforcement actions against the state's 2,472 family providers are rare, records show. About 1 percent (28) of family homes had licenses revoked or summarily suspended in the last three years, while another 1 percent (34) voluntarily surrendered licenses. Fewer than one percent of family homes were subject to consent orders.
C-HIT Intern Brittany Everett contributed to this story. This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (www.c-hit.org).