California's daycare inspection records are a maze for parents to navigate

The phone call from her child's daycare saying her little boy was injured wasn't the thing that sent waves of panic through Sarah Sandford-Smith's mind. It wasn't the 12-minute solo drive across Oakland to the child care facility. And it wasn't the call she immediately made to his pediatrician from the road preparing them for an emergency visit.

It was the sight of a daycare worker standing outside in the sun, holding her 13-month-old son, Isaac, in her arms, as her baby screamed in pain from the second- and third-degree burns on the lower half of his body. Daycare staff had been boiling water in an electric kettle within the children's reach and another toddler accidentally tipped it over.

"They were holding him outside," Sandford-Smith said. "I believe they were trying to clear the sink to run him under water and his skin was kind of peeled off his legs."

Isaac's case is one of thousands of such injuries, complaints, and safety lapses documented in a database maintained by the state Community Care Licensing office, which oversees child care centers, family childcare homes, and pre-schools as part of the Department of Social Services.

At the time of Isaac's burn accident in 2018, Tudorka Tots daycare center in East Oakland only had a handful of minor infractions on record. After he was burned, the state issued a Type A deficiency – the most serious -- and levied a $500 "zero tolerance" fine, the minimum civil penalty under the law. It also required management to submit a written plan of action for ensuring a similar accident doesn't happen again, which they did.

Even though the report of Isaac's incident is now available online, KTVU found thousands of serious injuries and accidents that weren't so easy to access. That's because they exist only on paper in one of 14 different licensing offices scattered across the state. Online records only go back five years.

SEARCH: Lookup child care facilities on the Dept. of Social Services Database

This piecemeal approach to public access makes the struggle for parents looking for affordable, safe, and reliable childcare much more onerous. And it comes at a time when California is facing a critical shortage of care providers. Even for parents who have the time and resources to dedicate to vetting multiple child care facilities, a chronic shortage of affordable care means that many families – especially those with low incomes and resources -- are stuck sending their children to whichever daycare where they can get accepted.

"Finding childcare is hard for any parent and finding quality childcare is extremely difficult," said Laurie Furstenfeld, senior staff attorney with the Childcare Law Center in San Francisco. "It disproportionately impacts families with limited resources, people of color, especially women of color."

Over the course of four months, KTVU visited three licensing offices in Rohnert Park, Oakland, and San Jose to review the records of some of the licensed daycare centers in the Bay Area with more than 12 of the most serious violations – called Type A – on record. The focus on the investigation was to examine how easy or hard it is for parents to evaluate the quality of a daycare.

In some instances, what KTVU found in the paper files painted a more troubling picture than the information that was available to parents on the state's website. In other words, none of these violations were listed online. They include:

  • In one childcare center in Emeryville, records show staff discovered second degree burns and blisters on the hands and feet of a crying child. According to the state report, none of the staff had realized the child wandered outside and was walking on the playground barefoot. And nobody could explain how the child was burned. Even though a child was hurt, the case manager issued a so-called Type B deficiency for lack of supervision – a less serious grade of violation for incidents that show "potential risk" to cause harm. No monetary fines were levied and the facility was required to hold a staff meeting to review policies and training.  
  • At a daycare center in Walnut Creek, inspectors wrote up four Type A deficiencies in one investigative report because the facility failed to report issues to the state as required. Records show on multiple occasions staff gave a child food that they were allergic to, resulting in a $150 fine in one case. The daycare also failed to tell the state when a child wandered out of a classroom and another child was left outside unsupervised. Also in that report, "a child was injured at the facility and required stitches and the facility did not report the incident as required," according to records. In those incidents the daycare was required to submit a written plan of correction and discipline a staff member.  
  • A daycare in Oakland was written up by the state for not having "sufficient food" available to its nearly 30 children and being "infested with mice." State records show management set traps and sealed up entry points to abate the problem.  
  • In Lafayette, one daycare's paper file shows multiple citations paid for staff leaving infants unsupervised, having under qualified teachers, or staff watching too many children at once. An older note showed that chemicals like "Raid and detergent" were also improperly stored in the food preparation areas until the owner corrected the issue.  
  • Inspectors documented an "outbreak of illness" at a preschool in Santa Rosa "where 15 children were will in one day." On another visit to follow up on a complaint an inspector noted that cots where children were napping had "metal, pointy edges, some screws sticking out" in addition to "a wood play structure with screws sticking out and wood falling apart." 

(Click the links above to see the full public records provided by the Dept. of Social Services that KTVU reviewed for this investigation, including documentation of any disciplinary action taken by the state and corrections made by each facility.)

Almost every child care center in California has some sort of issue documented, but not all are deemed serious, dangerous, or life-threatening -- things like having paperwork out of order. In infant care centers, the most commonly cited problems, for instance, have to do with staff-to-child ratios and children's personal rights, according to the state.

THE LIST: See how many serious violations a facility has on record with the state

In comparison to some other daycares' inspection records that KTVU examined, Tudorka Tots, where Isaac was burned, has a relatively thin file. The facility fired a staff member last year for allegedly "telling children if they did not nap they would not be able to have snacks" and "threatening to pinch a child if the child pinched staff." There were other less significant deficiencies recorded that were corrected.

The mass of paperwork can be overwhelming for most parents to sift through or understand.  And even though Community Care Licensing will pull files for parents to review in person for free, the state offices are only open during business hours when most parents who need to put their kids in childcare are at work.

SEARCH: Find the Community Care Licensing Office near you

Even KTVU spent weeks communicating with the Department of Social Services' spokesman Adam Weintraub in order to decode the agency's online spreadsheet that tallies all violations – tasks that are all too high a barrier for most parents.

Weintraub admits the online site is not perfect. But considering the limitations of technology, he said, the department is doing the best it can to provide as much up to date inspection records as possible to parents.

"The transparency site was set up in part to make sure as much of that information was available without having to get in your car and drive," Weintraub said. "I don't anticipate that we'll be retrofitting the records. That would be require pulling every paper file and we've got 73,000. Then redacting everything that can't go online."

That would mean millions or tens of millions of pages that would have to be digitized, according to Weintraub.

He added that parents should keep in mind that after five years many daycare facilities have had changes in management or licenses have changed hands because of high turnover in the field, so five years of records provides "a pretty good snapshot of the state of these facilities."

But right now, that five-year snapshot may only cover one or two regularly scheduled inspections by state licensing analysts, who are currently required to visit daycare facilities at least once every three years unless there is a complaint. The Child Care Licensing division has 339 licensing analysts on staff who conduct those on-site inspections. And each inspector is responsible for covering either 140 in-home family child care facilities or 94 commercial daycare centers.

As of last month, nearly 1.1 million children were being cared for in some type of state-licensed care facility, whether it's a home or commercial daycare, preschool, center for school-aged children, or care center for so-called "mildly ill" children, according to Weintraub.

But he said thanks to added resources in the state budget, starting in July 2018 the state began increasing the frequency of regular inspections with the goal of having all child care facilities inspected annually by July 1, 2021.

Weintraub suggests all parents read the reports listed on the state's website. "See if those instances are recent or repeated, and whether you would be comfortable with the corrective action that was taken."

READ: California Dept. of Social Services Guide to Choosing Child Care

Sandford-Smith says she was not satisfied with the way Tudorka Tots handled Isaac's burns. But added that she is lucky to have the means to pull Isaac out of daycare and hire a full-time nanny at home. She knows many families don't have that luxury.

"Some parents wait for a year or two for child care. Many families have to get on a child care waiting list the moment they find out that they're pregnant," said Furstenfeld.

According to Furstenfeld, there's currently only enough childcare to meet 23 percent of the need for working families statewide. And in the past decade, a third of family childcare homes in California have had to close because of high cost of rent, mortgages, utilities and insurance.

The chronic shortage means many families are left with an impossible choice: a low-quality provider, one that's too expensive or far away, or no child care at all.

"When parents can't work and children can't be cared for in the safe loving environment where they can thrive, learn, and develop, our whole community suffers," Furstenfeld said.

Several months after Isaac's accident Sandford-Smith finally posted her story on social media with a picture of his burns. He now wears compression leggings under his pants 23 hours a day, and his parents spend half an hour massaging the scar tissue on his legs before bed. Sandford-Smith says Isaac will likely need more surgeries in the future depending on how his skin grows as he ages. But for now she's grateful. "He's happy. He's alive."

The mother of three said posting a review of the daycare center online was the only thing she could think of to hold management accountable and inform other parents who may be daunted by the state's record keeping.

"If I was a parent, again doing a daycare search," she said, "I would absolutely want to know that the child had been injured in the daycare."

KTVU requested the complete files of actively licensed daycare centers in the Bay Area that had multiple notable Type A violations on record (as of August 2019) and posted the public documents used in this report here. Keep in mind, some facilities have higher numbers of deficiencies because they have been open longer than others, some have changed management over the years, and some have completed compliance programs with regulators in order to correct issue documented in these inspection records. Facilities have violations listed for a variety of reasons and not all of them are serious or life-threatening. The state licensing agency documents the penalties it levies and the corrective actions it requires for the public to see how it is regulating these facilities. Always reach out to your Community Care Licensing Regional Office if you have any questions about the information found in these public files.