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.
â€œThe whole place was sticky and disgusting,â€ said Tom Leatherbee, city planner for Del City.
Officials immediately declared the home â€œunfit for human occupancyâ€ 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.
â€œThey don't want us inspecting them,â€ said Mark Edwards, city manager of Del City.
â€œThe state just gives them permits and lets them go in,â€ he said. â€œWe don't have a clue who is out there now.â€
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.
â€œThe city of Del City condemned the property for structural and electrical issues that OCCS staff are not trained to identify or inspect,â€ 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.
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.
â€œWe're not aware of any that we have licensed,â€ Randall said.
A check of the DHS website, however, revealed that DHS has licensed more than 200 large family child care homes to operate in Oklahoma City â€” most with a listed capacity of 12 children.
Randall said city officials were unaware of that, but she would have them look into it.
Battle for data
Del City has had to battle DHS over the last four years for a list of child care homes operating there, Leatherbee said. At one point, DHS agreed to provide a list of child care homes, but refused to provide addresses, he said. Ultimately, Del City had to submit an official Open Records request to obtain a list of the child care homes and their addresses, he said.
â€œI don't think the city should have to use the Open Records Act just to try to work with DHS on something we jointly regulate,â€ he said.
Sheree Powell, spokeswoman for DHS, said employees in the agency's office of child care services said they were â€œunaware of any request for a list of homes in Del City.â€
Leatherbee called Powell's comment â€œcomical.â€
Powell subsequently provided The Oklahoman with a list of 21 homes and addresses that DHS has licensed to operate as child care homes in Del City and invited a reporter to share the information with Del City officials.
Powell said DHS does not have a requirement for child care home applicants to obtain city permits before being licensed by the state because city codes vary from one city to the next and â€œnot all cities require a permit.â€
â€œWe do advise all new facilities when they apply to check with their cities regarding any codes or permits as they may have additional requirements,â€ she said.
Safety is top concern
The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth conducted an investigation of DHS' handling and supervision of Del City's Brandon Jones Family Child Care Home after it was condemned and closed.
Investigator Vincent noted that Brandon Jones' mother, Sharyle Jones, operated a child care home for years before voluntarily closing the home in 2005 after being threatened with license revocation because of a â€œpattern of noncompliance.â€
The agency licensed Brandon Jones to open a family child care home the following year after he assured a licensing staff member â€œhis mother would not assist him in providing child care.â€
Less than a year later, he hired his mother as an assistant. DHS licensing officials noted that on at least 11 occasions Brandon Jones' mother was the only adult present when they arrived for their inspections, although Brandon Jones would arrive later.
Over the 3 Â½ years Brandon Jones operated a child care home, he was cited for violations for mouse droppings in the kitchen, uncovered electrical outlets, a heater in a play room that did not have a guard to protect children from getting burned, mold on a bathroom wall, an exposed sewage pipe that did not have a cap, expired eggs in the refrigerator, a television cable cord hanging from the house within reach of children and grass over 6 feet tall in an outside play area.
Other citations were for not having a battery in a smoke detector, allowing his car insurance to expire, incomplete children's records, playing an adult television show while children were awake, broken toys, not having an approved heat source, having a broken rail on a playpen, a lack of a smoke detector in the infant sleeping room and ripped floor mats.
Licensing officials did not view any of those violations to be serious enough to push for closing the home until it was condemned.
Brandon and Sharyle Jones could not be reached for comment. Brandon Jones' last known telephone number had been disconnected.