Despite concerns, University City day care stayed open after infant death

After a 4-month-old baby died last year at a University City day care center, state officials grew so concerned they drafted a letter saying they would shut down the business.

Workers at Chesterbrook Academy put the infant to sleep in a dangerous position and fell asleep while supervising five children in a classroom, the undated letter said.

But more than a year later, Chesterbrook remains open because the state later issued a lighter punishment.

North Carolina officials say they frequently reduce discipline against day care owners whose actions could warrant more severe consequences. The centers that show “a good faith effort” to improve and agree to more monitoring receive lesser sanctions, according to a letter sent to the baby’s parents.

In its first public comments on the case, the N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education said officials allowed Chesterbrook a chance to show improvement, going against a recommendation from their own investigator to close it.

Officials put Chesterbrook on probation in November, allowing the day care to keep its operating license over objections from the baby’s parents. The center off Mallard Creek Road now undergoes monthly inspections as part of its yearlong probation.

State law requires regulators “to make every effort to resolve disputes between agencies and a licensee informally, without resorting to litigation,” the agency said in a written statement to the Observer. “To this end, the division must consider providers’ responses to proposed administrative actions.”

Logan Bryant died June 10, 2013, after he was found unresponsive in a crib on his third day at Chesterbrook.

Workers put him to sleep on his stomach and put a washcloth over his head, a position considered too risky for infants because they can suffocate. Investigators allege one of the workers used her cellphone when she was supposed to be watching Logan and other children.

The Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services cited Chesterbrook for “serious neglect.”

But Mecklenburg Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Owens ruled that Logan died from sudden infant death syndrome, a natural and unpreventable cause of death that strikes otherwise healthy babies in their sleep.

Owens’ findings became part of a fight over how the day care center should be disciplined.

Logan’s parents sued Chesterbrook and questioned why the state did not revoke its license. In an interview earlier this year, they said state officials were prepared to shutter the day care but suddenly changed their minds.

The state put the center on probation after Steven Meckler, the day care’s attorney, noted the SIDS ruling.

In a letter to the state, Meckler wrote that the medical examiner’s office didn’t “attribute the child’s death to any acts or omissions” by the day care’s staff.

Meckler also said Chesterbrook was taking steps to retrain all its workers. Among the training listed was a course on SIDS and safe sleep, a cellphone policy review and a session creating a nurturing environment.

Chesterbrook recently reached a confidential lawsuit settlement with Logan’s parents. Two former Chesterbrook employees, Stephanie Johnson and Shanita Wright, have been arrested and face misdemeanor counts of contributing to the delinquency and neglect of a juvenile.

A spokeswoman for Nobel Education Dynamics, the Pennsylvania-based company that owns the day care, would not answer questions but issued a written statement.

“The safety and well-being of our children are our highest priorities, and we take very seriously our obligation to comply with all childcare licensing regulations as outlined by the state of North Carolina,” Kathleen Shaffer said.

Logan’s father, Thomas Bryant, declined to comment for this story.

Balancing act

Experts said the case reflects how North Carolina and other states struggle to balance child safety against fairness to day care operators.

Anna Carter, president of Child Care Services Association, a Chapel Hill nonprofit, said state officials are hesitant to close day care centers because it is time-consuming and cumbersome to parents. Instead, Carter said, they often aim to get troubled centers “back on track.”

“It can be a frustrating process,” said Carter, who is a former deputy director for the state Division of Child Development and Early Education. “There are so many steps it can take two, three, four years.

“They say, ‘Do we go through courts for three years, or do we say, “If you make these changes, that will get us to the point we need to be”?’ That’s a difficult balance.”

North Carolina, which is home to more than 7,000 day care centers, has a relatively solid reputation for monitoring them and setting guidelines. A 2013 report from Child Care Aware of America, a nationally known group, ranked North Carolina second among states for oversight and 21st overall.

The state says each year it issues between 250 and 300 disciplinary actions, ranging from warnings to revoking operating licenses. During a recent one-year span, 15 day care centers were ordered closed.

Recommendation rejected

When the state receives a complaint, a field investigator visits the day care center to gather facts and then makes a recommendation.

An internal panel at the Division of Child Development and Early Education’s central office in Raleigh reviews the recommendation decides whether to issue a punishment.

In the Chesterbrook case, documents show the panel received a recommendation to revoke the operator’s license. One document says revoking Chesterbrook’s license would be consistent with actions taken in similar cases.

Records say that Mecklenburg DSS had previously cited the center for child neglect.

On Oct. 10, 2012, state records show that a worker took four children from a classroom outside to a playground. A few minutes later, another employee noticed a 1-year-old asleep on the floor who had been left behind in the classroom.

State officials issued a written reprimand to Chesterbrook in February 2013. The day care fired the employee who didn’t realize the child was missing.

Chesterbrook enrolls about 110 students, ages 6 weeks to 5 years old. It is licensed as a four-star day care, the second highest designation in North Carolina for program, education and quality standards.

Documents show state officials initially agreed with the recommendation to revoke Chesterbrook’s license. During discussions, they noted the circumstances surrounding Logan’s death and the rough handling of another child.

But officials later decided to change the punishment to 12 months’ probation, saying the operator had conducted training for staff and fired the workers involved.

State officials issued a written statement in response to questions from the Observer but did not say whether Chesterbrook has followed the requirements of its probation. They did not say whether the SIDS ruling in Logan’s death factored into their decision to let the center continue to operate.

In May, they sent a letter to Logan’s parents explaining their decision to allow the day care center to remain open.

“If the Division determines there is a good faith effort on the part of the facility operator to comply with corrective action to reduce the risk of harm to children,” the letter reads, “the Division will often reduce an action such as a revocation to a lesser action.”

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