Del City child care home's condemnation raises serious questions

DHS has provided home child care licenses to numerous Oklahoma operators who have not obtained required city permits. The condemnation of a Del City child care home raises serious question about whether the agency is adequately protecting the health and safety of children kept at those homes.
BY RANDY ELLIS rellis@opubco.com Published: November 28, 2010

Del City officials were disturbed by what they found last December when they responded to a complaint at a state-licensed family child care home.

There were huge holes in the walls, a dangerously exposed space heater, a low-hanging cable in the yard and other health and safety hazards.

“The whole place was sticky and disgusting,” said Tom Leatherbee, city planner for Del City.

Officials immediately declared the home “unfit for human occupancy” and ordered it condemned.

An investigation by The Oklahoman has revealed that in Oklahoma City and Del City, alone, the state Department of Human Services has issued licenses to more than 230 child care homes without first requiring operators to obtain city permits or notifying the cities that the DHS licenses have been issued.

Consequently, hundreds of home child care businesses are operating in Oklahoma that have not undergone city fire, health and building inspections to make sure they meet minimum city codes.

“They don't want us inspecting them,” said Mark Edwards, city manager of Del City.

“The state just gives them permits and lets them go in,” he said. “We don't have a clue who is out there now.”

A DHS spokeswoman denied the agency has been uncooperative.

DHS child care licensing officials regularly inspect family child care homes and look for things such as building maintenance and fire safety problems, but the director of DHS' child care services division said in a letter to an investigator for the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth that employees were not trained to look for safety dangers like those found by Del City inspectors.

“The city of Del City condemned the property for structural and electrical issues that OCCS staff are not trained to identify or inspect,” director Lesli Blazer wrote.

Once DHS officials were made aware of the unsafe condition of the home and the risk to children, child care operator Brandon Jones was asked to cease care at the home at 4213 SE 41 and DHS officials recommended revocation of his license, she said.

Avoidable situation

The situation should never have happened, Edwards said. Even more concerning: It may be happening all over the state, he said.

Like many Oklahoma cities, Del City has ordinances that require family home child care centers to obtain city permits before opening for business.

Del City will not issue a city permit unless a child care home is first inspected to make sure it meets all fire, health and safety codes. Reinspections are then done at regular intervals to make sure the home remains safe.

The condemned Del City child care home did not have a city permit. A subsequent inquiry by Del City officials revealed there were nearly 30 DHS-licensed family child care homes operating in Del City. None of them had the required city permits.

Leatherbee and Edwards said DHS licensing officials fought them at every turn as they tried to find out what family child care homes were operating in their city.

Del City officials aren't the only ones in the dark.

Susan Randall, assistant city attorney for Oklahoma City, told The Oklahoman that large family child care homes that keep eight to 12 children must meet the same stringent safety and parking requirements as a child care center business to obtain a city permit in Oklahoma City.

J.J. Chambless, city planner for Oklahoma City, said it's almost impossible for any home to meet those requirements and none have received a city permit.

“We're not aware of any that we have licensed,” Randall said.

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