Images of a Mineola daycare worker picking up a boy, violently throwing him onto a table and yelling at him made news headlines in 2011.
The incident resulted in the worker's conviction and firings at the daycare.
While the case was one of the region's most notorious in recent years, incidents of daycare abuse and neglect are common throughout East Texas, based on a review of Department of Family and Protective Services' Child Care Licensing records.
Children have walked out of centers or been left unattended. Centers have been cited for improperly storing medications and dangerous chemicals. Some have fire dangers. Three-fourths of them have been cited for failing to conduct employee background checks.
Tyler Metro Daycare on Troup Highway, for example, was cited for a teacher biting a child, according to a December 2012 report.
"The child was bit on a vital organ and received a serious injury," the report states. The teacher was immediately terminated.
But that hasn't been the only incident at Tyler Metro Daycare, which the state has cited for 53 deficiencies the past two years, according to state records.
Carissa Fisher, director at Tyler Metro, said she notified the state of the biting incident, and the teacher in the incident no longer works with children.
"We have terminated people for various reasons, but about half of the listed problems were calls made by a worker's former boyfriend, who kept calling and reporting things that were not true," she said.
Mrs. Fisher said after the biting incident the state inspectors, with whom she said she has a good rapport, visited the center monthly.
"One thing can be listed several ways, so many times one issue results in multiple deficiencies," she said.
The Department of Family and Protective Services' Child Care Licensing oversees both home- and facility-based daycare operations in Texas.
The state requires daycare operators to adhere to 2,500 minimum standards to ensure children's safety.
Shari Pulliam, a Department of Family and Protective Services spokeswoman, said deficiencies fall on a severity scale.
Lesser deficiencies include minor record-keeping mistakes, while high-ranked problems include children being left unattended, hitting or other cruel punishment and failure to maintain smoke detectors.
Ms. Pulliam said the state is dedicated to holding facilities to strict minimum standards.
"Everything comes back to child safety," she said. "We want to make sure when a parent or a caregiver drops their child or children off at a daycare center that their child is safe."
In Tyler and across East Texas, there are operations with no deficiencies over the past two years, and several have seen only minor issues.
Child Care Licensing has eight inspectors in the region, but Ms. Pulliam said parents must do their part in researching potential child-care providers.
"You do research on what type of car you're going to buy. You're going to research what type of TV you're going to buy, but are you going to research (the) childcare operation you are going to put your child in?" she said.
State records show that of the region's 465 permitted daycare facilities, more than 75 percent have been cited in the past two years for failing to perform required background checks.
Many daycares had multiple violations of failing to provide background checks. A background look includes a $2 check done by the state and FBI and then a $40 to $50 fingerprint fee to run criminal histories.
Ms. Pulliam said most background check violations are due to the centers being so involved in the day-to-day operations that they simply neglect to conduct the checks. However, there have been cases where a worker would not have passed the check had it been conducted.
With 116 citations the past two years, Kidz Paradise on the West-Southwest Loop 323 has had the area's highest number of deficiencies, state records show.
Of those, 30 were weighted high, 46 rated medium high, 31 were medium, five were listed as medium low and four were low.
The center has been cited more than 15 times in the past two years for failing to perform the required background checks. Multiple times, the inspector cited the center for chirping smoke detectors, meaning the batteries needed changing.
Owner and director Kristain Tatum said there had been some problems in the past with other directors, but she is trying to educate her employees and make the necessary improvements.
"We've gotten rid of two directors, and we're now our own directors and are going through training and learning, and now we're actually in the center ourselves," she said. "My license report is up on the website, and my (kids') parents can see it, and I have nothing to hide. We are doing additional training, because we have some things the staff is not understanding."
Ms. Tatum said the report showed problem areas, but she believes the 38 children in her care are safe.
Gary Bender, owner of Ready Set Grow, also listed as Creative Kids, acknowledged that his facility has been cited for more than 40 deficiencies in the past two years, but a new director has taken over, and the problems have been corrected.
Between 2011 and May of this year, the daycare was cited for workers yelling at children, grabbing them too roughly, yelling at babies to go to sleep, and pushing their heads down onto the crib mattresses and telling them to go to sleep.
The center also was cited for failed background checks, propping up baby bottles to feed babies lying on their backs, and failure to demonstrate competency, good judgment and self-control.
"We terminated those individuals as soon as it was brought to our attention," he said.
However, during a recent visit from reporters from KYTX CBS19 and the TylerMorning Telegraph, several deficiencies could be seen.
The front door was unlocked, and a half-door leading to where the children were was left opened.
"That day, we were shorthanded," Bender said. "I'm not making any excuses, but we have had some problems with tardiness and absenteeism.
"Two people who might have faced termination for not showing up for work on time did not come back to work after we had addressed the issue. I guess they thought they were going to be terminated, so they didn't come back."
Bender said he wanted to provide a safe environment for children but added that the state agency charged with keeping daycares in compliance with the required 2,500 minimum standards is sometimes difficult to work with.
"I've had (agency) reps come in and treat us like dirt and not give us any slack, and then we've had others who come in and treat us with respect and talk to us about how we could better do something," he said. "We have felt some of the deficiencies were undeserving, while others were deserved."
Ms. Pulliam said the inspectors are doing their jobs in spotting dangers and protecting children.
Most problems are corrected during an inspector's visit, she said. For other problems, the facility is given a deadline to fix them.
A facility that fails to comply faces closure, and three East Texas centers have had their licenses revoked and were closed the past two years, she said.
The state's database on local daycare centers and home operations is publicly accessible and contains the facilities' histories in regard to inspections and deficiencies.
Here are some of the deficiencies of East Texas facilities:
- A teacher at the Faithful Care Learning Center in Tyler left a child in a room where a box was on fire on the stove. The report states the teacher failed to evacuate all students in a timely manner and had to be told to go back in and get the child, who was asleep on the floor where the fire was. Monique Poole, the center's assistant director, said the fire was "not that big of a deal." Mrs. Poole said the inspector for her center was "overzealous." Mrs. Poole said, "When she reports something, she tends to make it bigger than it really is, and it makes it seem like we're incompetent."
- A child at the New Brighter Day Christian Academy in Tyler escaped the center without a caregiver being aware of the absence. Director Loston Taylor said her center works diligently to provide a safe environment for children, and the day the child got out, she believed a parent left a gate open.
- A caregiver at We Learn Childcare Center in Tyler admitted to spanking children with a flyswatter. A message for comment was left with the center, but the call was not returned as of late Tuesday.
- At USA Planet Kids in Tyler, several children stated daycare workers spanked them. The TylerMorning Telegraph left a message for comment with the center, but the call was not returned as of late Tuesday.
- At Bullard Early Education, a teacher put a child in a dark closet for discipline. The teacher was immediately fired. Director Sabrina Thoene said the incident was not as it seemed in the report, but added that she was the one who reported the incident. She said the child is still at the daycare center. She explained she went into childcare 23 years ago when her son suffered an injury at the hands of a daycare worker. "I feel like this daycare center is one of the best in the area, and I stand behind it and the teachers we have working here," she said. "Parents should do some research on their child care, and the most expensive places are not necessarily the best ones. One thing we need to think about it is that a person has to have more education to cut your hair than what it is required to take care of children."
- At Oak Hill Montessori in Tyler, a child was placed in a restroom as punishment, and one caregiver was observed swatting children on hands and bottoms. Director Kathy Atherton said the teacher was terminated immediately because her center uses positive redirect instead of punishment for children. She said the center has strict policies, and when a teacher fails to follow the procedures, they are terminated. "We are here for our children and they are number one," she said.
- At the Shiloh Road Learning Center in Tyler, a teacher used a stick to hit a child. A group of toddlers were taken outside, and one was left outside alone for more than 20 minutes. A center official said, "We are under total new management."
- At New Life Learning Center in Tyler, a teacher kicked a child. The teacher was terminated. A teacher slapped an infant, and a child was left on the center's bus for more than an hour. Messages from the TylerMorning Telegraph to the center went unanswered.
- At Country Cottage No. 3 in Angelina County, a child was lifted by wrist, and an elbow was pulled out of socket. Reporter calls to the facility went unanswered.
There were multiple cases of children being left unattended, teachers not knowing how many children were in their care, smoke alarms and fire extinguishers not working and sanitation issues at daycares across the area.
Ms. Pulliam said once an abuse case is reported, Child Protective Services investigators get involved.
Depending on the circumstances, investigators might forward cases to local law enforcement agencies, which then determine whether there is sufficient evidence for a criminal case.
Tyler police spokesman Don Martin said that in recent years, his department has investigated only a handful of such cases, but none was forwarded to the district attorney and no arrests were made because evidence could not be gathered to corroborate the allegations.
In the case of the child bitten at Tyler Metro, Mrs. Fisher said police did not pursue criminal charges in the case, but restrictions were put on the former worker, and she can no longer work in child care.
However, there have been several East Texas case in which the daycare worker was arrested, and in the 2011 Mineola case, the daycare worker was found guilty of injury to a child and given probation.
Ms. Pulliam said in most cases of alleged abuse, the daycare administration immediately terminates the individual and reports the case to inspectors.
But daycare facilities don't always report an incident that results in a worker's firing, she said, and sometimes fired workers wind up at other daycares.
"Parents are really diligent about reporting it to the hot line, and daycare directors self-report on themselves all of the time," Ms. Pulliam said. "As a parent, you need to be vigilant on reporting it to the hot line if something did happen to your child."
Ms. Pulliam suggested anyone with a child in daycare or looking for daycare should look at the website and do some basic research.
"Every parent should check that website before they put their child in a daycare and while their child is in the daycare," she said. "It has a wealth of information on that site that lists every center, every deficiency and when it was corrected. (Parents) need to meet their director. They need to know their teacher's name, and they should pop in unannounced.
"We are going out there and investigating allegations of abuse … but parents need to do their job also."
For Mrs. Fisher, she hopes the past will not bring negative outlook on Tyler Metro Daycare, but that people will see the system is there to protect children, and daycares have a huge responsibility and work hard to provide quality care an ensure children's safety.
"We have worked hard to fix the issues and we have a good relationship with our inspectors and we work with our parents. We take this very seriously," she said.
Ms. Pulliam said one of the biggest dangers in the childcare arena is unlicensed, unmonitored child care in homes, which is illegal.
"I encourage everyone to choose a licensed operation, not an unlicensed operation," she said.
One of the tools at the disposal of the inspectors is an emergency closure, and Ms. Pulliam said it has been done and will be done when children are in danger.
"Our No. 1 focus is to keep children safe in daycare and that is what we do every day," she said.