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How to really do your homework when choosing your child’s daycare center or preschool.

The Internet is a parent’s best friend.

With a few clicks of a mouse or taps at a screen, Ergos, ExerSaucers and Enfamil magically arrive at your doorstep while you’re still stumbling sleep-deprived around the house wearing last week’s yoga pants.

Need daycare or a preschool? The Internet can also help you find good options near your house, your office or your bus line.(Try findchildcareoregon.org or our own pdxparent.com/childcare-preschool). And Facebook groups such as Portland Mamas can offer anecdotal evidence that your top choices won’t feed your child Lunchables day after day and send her outside in summer with no sunscreen.

But when it comes time to really dig into your child’s potential caregivers, you’re going to have to do something old-fashioned: Pick up a phone.

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The state of Oregon’s online database for complaints about child care centers and preschools is a great place to start for the straight scoop on deficiencies that other parents have spotted over the years. (See “Step-By-Step” on page 30 for a guide on how to get the most out of the website — and where to turn to next.)

Child_Care-Elly_Art12042016So what kinds of violations should raise a red flag? Anything that poses an immediate danger to a child’s health or safety, of course. Beyond that it’s really a judgment call. “A lot of it has to do with a family’s values,” says Dawn Woods, child care director for Oregon’s Early Learning Division, “and what they feel is serious.”

In any case, the website will give you info about valid complaints going back 10 years and, starting on Feb. 1, 2014, any other problems inspectors note while investigating complaints.

It turns out that Oregon child care facilities are dinged for any number of reasons. Over a two-year period, for example, one Portland facility alone was called out for leaving toddlers in high chairs for 30-minute stretches, overlooking the director/s repeated use of profanity in front of children, letting a dog onsite nip at kids, scheduling a caretaker to work without waiting for her background check to go through, failing to serve children fruit or vegetables at snack time and — there’s more —falling out of compliance with child-to-staff ratios on multiple occasions. (The place is still in business, and the owner later denied the part about the dog.)

At another Portland facility, state investigators issued a warning that the bark-chip surface around its climbing structure didn’t go deep enough. (It needed to be 9-inches deep, not 3 or 4. Who knew?)

BadCruzie_Wolf2_koAs a bonus, you can also read a center’s response to the state’s findings, assuming they offered a response. These documents provide further insight into the center’s professionalism. In the first example, the center responded to at least one finding by disputing it and suggesting that the complainant was “disgruntled.”

In the second example, the center responded by thanking the state for pointing out the oversight. “Bark chips were added to the play yard,” the director wrote. “Now there are the required 9 inches of bark chips as required by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.”

But don’t be fooled.

Even with all that information at your fingertips, the online database offers only a partial glimpse at the center’s cleanliness, compliance and professionalism. So don’t be surprised if you go to the website and find out your center has a violation, but you’re not able to read about it online. And while the vast majority of centers check out just fine, don’t assume that everything is peachy just because your center doesn’t show up online.

That’s because the state’s website doesn’t list violations that inspectors observed during routine checks or violations they observed while investigating complaints before Feb. 1, 2014.

That’s potentially a lot of additional information, because the state’s Office of Child Care in the Early Learning Division sends investigators to inspect child care centers annually as part of their licensing. Those visits are announced. But inspectors also make one unannounced visit midway between licensing visits at each center.

And for the inside story on those potential findings, you’ll have to call the state’s 1-800 number between the hours of 7:30 am and 5 pm Monday through Friday and ask for a center’s compliance history. A state employee will then walk you through a center’s full history, including any invalid complaints or any additional findings not related to complaints.

Anyone can call the number, even parents who already have a child enrolled at a daycare center. In these cases, a parent would be directed to the investigator specifically assigned to his or her child’s center.

Calling the number can be revealing. Remember the center with the director who dropped curse words? The one that had a dog that allegedly nipped at children? A call to the hotline also would reveal that three years ago four unsupervised children between the ages of 4 and 7 grabbed an iPad and used it to take “inappropriate” photos of themselves. “The children were not naked,” the director wrote in an email sent to state investigators in her defense, according to documents disclosed through a public records request. (More about those in a bit.)

You can even go further.

Early childhood education centers are required to post their licenses and information about where to send complaints in places parents can see them. But they aren’t required to post notices with the results of their most recent inspections. So before I enrolled my daughter in daycare for the first time, I asked the center’s director if I could inspect her onsite records to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I hadn’t, but I did go down in history as the first mother in years to make this request, she said.

The records I reviewed were the center’s carbon copies of a series of checklists the state investigator reviewed on her visits. The items on the checklist were very specific. Had all of the center’s employees completed mandatory trainings? Were potentially hazardous cleaning chemicals locked away? What I remember the most about the records was that the state inspector had simply drawn a line from the top of each page to the bottom through all of the “yes” boxes rather than individually checking each box. On the one hand, the center sure had a lot of rules to follow, it seemed. On the other hand, was the inspector truly checking to make sure the center was following each one, I wondered?

To me it was worth the potential embarrassment of being the first parent to ask for this information, because while perusing the paperwork, I stumbled into documentation that reminded me of what I already knew in my gut, even if we don’t always want to dwell on it — that despite sky-high child care costs, my daughter’s teachers made starting wages that were measly, about minimum wage.

Child_Care_-_Play_area_-_bark_chips-2

More than 1,200 licensed child care centers operate in Oregon, with a quarter of those in Portland alone. That statewide number does not include home-based centers, which bring the total even higher — to 4,285.

Of the 1,200 or so child care centers in Oregon, only four lost or failed to renew their licenses in 2015, state records show. One was in Portland. (State officials declined to release the records explaining that center’s situation, saying they weren’t public because the state hadn’t issued a final order yet.) Ninety-five home based centers lost or failed to renew licenses in 2015, with 21 of those in Portland.

Woods, the child care administrator, says Oregon officials try first to help struggling centers improve. The goal is to maintain Oregon’s needed supply of daycare/preschool options. If they don’t get better, it’s a long process to put them out of business. “Based on our level of authority,” says Woods, “it does take a while.”

Together, though, the bad apples account for less than 2 percent of all licensed facilities in Oregon, which may offer you some comfort that your child is in good hands.

In the pursuit of what’s best for your kid, an old journalism saying is a good guide: Trust but verify.

Beth Slovic is an investigative reporter at Willamette Week and a mother of a 3-year-old girl.

Elly Azerrad, 7, is the daughter of editor Julia Silverman. She spends most of her free time writing and illustrating her own stories, and wants to be an author someday.

Adela Parker, daughter of managing editor Denise Castañon, is 3. She loves to draw, sing and play with her 1-year-old brother. Adela wants to be a firefighter when she grows up.

step by step

Step 1
Head to the website for Oregon’s Office of Childcare, where you’ll find complaint history for all 4,285 licensed child care centers and home-based facilities. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click the little magnifying glass icon. The website will then take you to a screen that allows you to search for a center using its name, license number or address. If you don’t see any violations listed, go to the next step. It doesn’t necessarily mean the center has a clean record. oregon.gov/OCC/Pages/complaints.aspx

Step 2
Next, call a compliance specialist at the state and ask for a full compliance history of the center or centers you’re interested in. He or she will read you a history of the center over the phone. Call 1-800-556-6616 between the hours of 7:30 am and 5 pm Monday to Friday.

Step 3
Ask a center you tour if you can look at on-site inspection records. There’s no requirement that they make them available. So be sure to give them a heads up in advance and be nice about it. They may not have the records at their fingertips, and you may be the first parent ever to ask for them.

Step 4
Still not satisfied? You can submit a public records request to the state for all of the documentation showing a center’s compliance history. This would include letters from the state to the center about any possible fines as well as letters from the provider offering any explanations for their deficiencies. Email the public affairs director at the state’s Early Learning Division, Karol Collymore, at karol.collymore@state.or.us. Tell her you’re making the request “under Oregon’s public records law.” Give her the name of the center and ask for records showing the center’s full compliance history. It’s possible the state will charge you for the records. It’s a good idea to ask in advance for an estimate of the charges so you don’t get stuck with a big bill.

See pdxparent.com/questions-for-daycares for a preschool owner’s tips on what questions to ask when choosing the right school for your child.

Beth Slovic
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