Failing stars: NC rating system doesn't always reflect quality of day care centers
Posted November 1, 2016 6:15 p.m. EDT
Updated November 1, 2016 7:07 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Thousands of licensed childcare centers in North Carolina are inspected each year for health, safety and educational programs.
Some facilities undergo more rigorous evaluation in an attempt to earn stars as part of a rating system that ranges from one star to five stars.
While many parents count on that rating information to choose where they'll send their child or children, WRAL Investigates found that the star-rating of a facility doesn't tell the whole story.
WRAL Investigates began looking into the rating system following the arrest of a worker at a Raleigh day care on child abuse charges.
The center had a five-star license and still does, despite that arrest and other recent violations ranging from not adequately supervising children to expired background checks for employees.
A change in state law means those violations have little impact on a facility's star rating.
A worker at Appletree Child Development Center on Poole Road in Raleigh was accused last year of inappropriately touching children during a movie field trip.
In October, a worker at Appletree Day Care on Old Poole Road in Raleigh was charged with child abuse.
Kasandra Sharpe says she couldn't believe the video when she watched a teacher shoving her 18-month-old son. Tracey Stallings was charged in the incident.
Sharpe says she researched close to 20 day care facilities before choosing Appletree.
"I thought I made the right choice with the right day care, but I didn't. I was wrong," Sharpe said.
Tamara Barnes, who oversees North Carolina's regulation of 6,500 childcare centers, says the rating system is simply one research tool for parents and should "absolutely not" be the only thing a parent looks at.
"The star rating is there to help (parents) get started," Barnes said.
In fact, violations rarely lower a facility's star rating.
After the state substantiated the inappropriate sexual contact by a worker at the Appletree Child Development Center in August 2015, inspectors showed up at the facility nine times.
They found violations during six of those visits, ranging from hazardous materials not properly stored to a staff member of two children inappropriately touching each other.
The state issued warning letters giving staff members two weeks to implement corrective action plans, including orders to maintain compliance with regulations at all times.
Despite that, inspectors returned the facility and found more violations.
Still, there is no record of further penalties, and Appletree Child Development Center maintained its five-star rating.
"Your star-rated license can be removed based on how serious the situation is," Barnes said.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services issues probation or a provisional license about 400 times a year, but for legal reasons, DHHS couldn't explain why it didn't happen at Appletree Child Development Center.
At Appletree Day Care, state consultants visited 21 times in the past two years and found violations on nine occasions, including the recent child abuse case.
Among the violations were expired background checks for employees and an infant crawling out of a room and down the hallway unsupervised.
That facility has also kept its five-star rating.
Barnes says a 2005 law change essentially took compliance out of the star rating equation.
"We couldn't find indicators that showed that the compliance history really helped us with the health and safety of children," Barnes said.
Stars are now awarded based on staff education and program standards. Facilities need only a 75 percent compliance score to qualify for the star system.
"A lot of times there are things that happen that, really, the owner had nothing to do with in a childcare facility," Barnes said.
Barnes says punishing a center for the actions of one worker isn't always fair, but she admits that there is a need to make sure children are protected.
Sharpe said she isn't sure about the idea of not punishing centers for the actions of workers.
"They should not be allowed to work with any children," she said.
WRAL Investigates contacted Appletree, which has four five-star rated facilities in Raleigh. Owner Carolyn Driggers says her facilities provide excellent care for children.
As for the recent incidents, Driggers says the state "investigates and issues a determination according to what they found."
"It may mean that a center has to increase training, change methods or implement new policies," she said. "We have always abided by any instructions given to us."
Driggers also issued a statement about the star-rating system and recent incidents at her facilities.
"A center is not required to participate in the star-rated system. If they choose not to participate, then they will automatically be a one-start center," Driggers said in a statement. "This does not mean they are not a quality child care center. In order to receive Child Care Subsidy, which assists lower-income families with child care tuition, you must be at least a three-start center. Appletree has always wanted the best for the parents and families we serve. That's why, when North Carolina adopted the Five Star Rating System, achieving the five stars rating was our goal."
Driggers says Appletree currently employs 89 staff members and cares for 390 children.
The state recommends that parents use the star-rating system as a starting point when they search for child care facilities. DHHS offers several tips online for those searching for facilities.
The North Carolina Licensed Child Care Association, which represents thousands of facilities across the state, said in a statement that the rating system of stars can be "nebulous and hard for parents to understand."
"It's not meant or designed to be an indicator of staff/personnel infractions," Linda Piper, a spokesman for the NCLCCA, said in a statement. "That's why parents should look beyond ratings and visit facilities, talk with owners and staff and ask for references."
Piper said each employee at a licensed facility must undergo an extensive criminal background check.