- Day care letter to parents (PDF - 1462kb)
DCF orders area day-care center to close down
The agency says Little People's Palace was operating for almost a month without a license.
Published: Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 9:52 p.m.
The playground at Little People's Palace on Northeast Waldo Road has been silent for the past week.
On Wednesday, workers spent much of the day moving furniture and other equipment from the day-care center after the Florida Department of Children and Families closed the facility for operating for almost a month without a license.
At issue for DCF, which closed the center on Sept. 23, is a long list of compliance violations, including determining whether the director was a woman with a long history of citations.
Barbara Cummings, Connie James and Alicia Gilchrist have all been listed as directors at some point over the past two years in state inspection reports.
The license for Little People's Palace, listed under owner Connie James, was revoked on Aug. 27. No appeal of the decision had been filed as of late Wednesday.
According to DCF, Cummings is not eligible for a license based on several issues highlighted in her background check.
DCF regional spokesman John Harrell said the information in Cummings' file is confidential and that he could not discuss it. However, he said past training, criminal history and abuse history of any applicant is taken into account when issuing a license.
Cummings informed parents on Sept. 19 that the facility had changed its name to Growing Gators Christian Academy and that she was now the director. However, no business with that name was listed with the Secretary of State's Office as of late Wednesday.
When asked about the center being closed and her involvement with the facility, Cummings on Wednesday said, "I was just a worker. I was never the owner or director. The director is Alicia Gilchrist."
Cummings declined to comment further.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows that Cummings was arrested in 2000 on a charge of cruelty toward a child, but the case was dismissed.
In recent DCF inspection reports, Cummings along with several other workers did not have background screenings on file along with required training documentation.
Cummings formerly operated Kids Zone in Gainesville. In 2000, as part of a settlement to avoid the center's closure, she agreed not to be on the premises while children were present.
The center had racked up a laundry list of violations including lack of adequate supervision for the number of children being cared for and lack of staff background screenings and training.
The address of Little People's Palace or Growing Gators Christian Academy, at 530 N.E. Waldo Road, also is listed as Kids N' All Learning Center Inc. No. 1 in documents filed on July 26 with the Florida Department of Corporations. In addition, the DCF order listed it as "Children of Destiny/any child care at 530 NE Waldo Road."
On Sept. 22, a DCF licensing counselor was told by Cummings that she had purchased the business and was operating it under the religious-exempt program.
Under state statute, day-care centers that are an integral part of a church or parochial school do not have to comply with most licensing requirements except those dealing with the screening of personnel and health, sanitation and safety.
The DCF counselor said Cummings refused access to the building to complete a health and safety inspection. The counselor observed 20 children inside the building, according to DCF.
The agency had not received any of the required documents to have the day-care center deemed religious-exempt and could not make a determination to either grant or deny the exempt status, DCF reported.
Becky O'Brien, spokeswoman for the local DCF office, said the license under Connie James previously had been in probationary status for non-compliance in several areas. She said staff made a follow-up visit when the appeal deadline drew near.
It was then that Cummings told the agency she owned the facility, O'Brien said.
"Regardless of who was the owner or director, the facility was closed because neither one had a license to operate a day care," O'Brien said.
James on Wednesday placed a call to The Gainesville Sun and declined to say much beyond, "No, I am not the owner. There is information that I need to gather about all of this."
In July, James' contract with the Early Learning Coalition of Alachua County was terminated because of concerns over the quality of care, coalition director Gordon Tremaine said.
Tremaine estimated that the coalition provided subsidized payments for about 70 percent of the students attending Little People's Palace. Details on the day-care center's tuition and the amount of the subsidies could not be immediately determined.
"It's rare that we terminate a contract, and I'm sure when we did that was a huge blow to her," Tremaine said of James.
Affected parents such as Jasmine Kendall-Anderson have spent the week scrambling to find day care for their children. Kendall-Anderson said she received a phone call from her husband shortly before 8 a.m. on Sept. 24 informing her that the facility had closed.
"We had no message from the school about what was going on," she said. "I haven't been able to go to my part-time job because I'm calling day-care centers to get prices and then visit them."
Kendall-Anderson said August was the first time she'd placed her 2-year-old son in day care and that the experience has been horrible with the facility suddenly shuttered.
She said she has tried unsuccessfully to claim her son's belongings from the building and has written off any refund from her advance payment. She paid $80 per week, which was due on the preceding Friday, she said.
She said a letter was handed out on Sept. 19 informing parents of the name change to Growing Gators Christian Academy.
The typed letter, which contained typos and grammatical mistakes, also stated that Connie James was no longer the owner of the center and that it now was under the direction and ministry of Growing Gators Christian Academy. The letter listed Cummings as the center director.
Kendall-Anderson, who knew of Cummings' history of failed child-care facilities, said the letter gave her pause.
"I had a conversation with her (Cummings) on Monday (Sept. 21) about the letter, and she told me there would be a parents meeting, but that day never came," Kendall-Anderson said. "I'm glad DCF closed them down. I just wish (the facility) had been professional about it and told the parents what was going on. An apology would be nice."
She said while the facility appeared to be nice and clean with reasonable prices, she was growing concerned that the day care was short-staffed since she found her son placed in a different classroom or had a different teacher when she arrived each evening.
"They need to be permanently banned from operating a day-care center, and they need to find a new line of work," Kendall-Anderson said.
Harrell said the order to close cannot be appealed. He said staff is checking several times a day to make sure the center remains closed.
"If it reopens, it is a criminal violation," Harrell said.
As far as parents recouping advance payments, Harrell said DCF has no say in the matter, and he suggested small-claims court might be an option.
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