Parents, regulators and other child-care providers all knew the Arena Early Learning Center had serious problems, and some were shocked that the facility was allowed to keep its doors open despite a five-year effort by the state to shut it down.
"We often said, 'Why is this program still open? How could this be possible?" said Chad Dunkley, president of the Minnesota ChildCare Association and chief executive of the New Horizon day-care chain in Minnesota.
On Wednesday, state child-care officials pledged swifter action against problem day-care centers that, like the Brooklyn Center facility, repeatedly and persistently disregard state safety rules.
Arena finally closed late last month when the state ordered a temporary immediate suspension -- only the third emergency suspension of its kind in 10 years. But that action came only after 50 complaint investigations since the facility opened in 2004. The state first tried to shut down Arena in 2007, but facility owner Antonio L. Smith appealed repeated citations and kept operating the facility that served 88 children.
Lori Yalartai kept her oldest son at Arena, and placed her newborn (now 10 months old) there despite her concerns. On one occasion she arrived to find her infant sleeping on his stomach, which creates a risk for sudden infant death syndrome -- something the state said was a common safety risk at the facility.
When her oldest son, now 5, started having angry outbursts and problems, she suspected he might have ADHD, and took him to the Washburn Center for Children for a mental health assessment. She was told there that the problem wasn't her son, but his day care.
"They thought it was coming from the school and that there were underlying problems in the room," she said. "There was something going on there that he was not telling us."
State officials acknowledge that their efforts to shut Smith's facility took an unacceptably long time. The case has spawned discussions within the Department of Human Services about resolving complaints more quickly against the state's nearly 1,600 licensed centers that can care for as many as 103,000 children.
"We all felt the same way about the length of this case," said Deputy Commissioner Anne Barry. "Given this case there will be a new level of attention to every alternative available to us."
Perhaps the department could have imposed the suspension earlier, Barry said. But, she said, child-care providers have rights under the law and litigation takes time.
Yalartai, like many parents at the facility, selected it because they worked odd hours and Arena was one of the few centers open 24 hours. She put faith in the facility because the state had helped pay for it through child-care assistance for low-income parents.
"I would assume if they're willing to pay," she said, "then it is OK. Nothing to worry about."
It's an incorrect assumption made by many parents receiving assistance, said Ann McCully, executive director of the Minnesota Child Care Resource and Referral Network. If a parent selects a licensed or unlicensed facility that has met the state's basic requirements, then the state is obliged to pay for it.
Even with state support, Dunkley said, many families seek the cheapest licensed facilities. Minnesota has the third-highest average cost in the nation for center-based care because of its requirements on staff ratios and training. (Full-time care for one infant averages $12,900.) Dunkley said a bargain price should be a red flag.
"[Arena] was one of the least expensive providers and tried to do it on the cheap," Dunkley said. "You can't do it on the cheap and do it well in Minnesota."
Business and child-care leaders are collaborating on a system called Parent Aware (www.parentawareratings.org) that will give low-income parents information about top centers and scholarships to afford those centers.
Any child-care facility cited by the state for a serious safety violation would be dropped from Parent Aware's list of eligible centers, McCully said.
Parents could consult the rankings on the list to choose the best child care, she added. "One of the things that Parent Aware strives to do is really help educate parents" and make them the "whistleblowers" on bad facilities. She also encouraged parents to always check the DHS licensing website for disciplinary actions before selecting a facility.
State regulators can speed up disciplinary actions against child-care facilities by seeking legal settlements that allow them to stay open with restrictions. But the department did not see that as an option for Arena because regulators didn't see any evidence that the center would correct its persistent safety violations.
"It became clear there certainly wasn't motivation to comply," said Jerry Kerber, the DHS inspector general, who oversees the licensing division.
Smith, the owner of the troubled facility, was a primary reason why state licensing officials were concerned. He had received a no-contact order with children after a 2010 background check. They discovered in January that he had violated that order and the center had numerous safety problems that led to the shutdown.
Kerber said the department is supporting legislation that would require competency testing for people trying to become day-care operators.
He said many of the most severe problems occur among 11,500 licensed home-based child-care settings with a capacity to serve 131,000 children. Of the 183 emergency suspensions at licensed facilities that occurred in 2010 and 2011, all but one involved these smaller facilities. Of the 22 deaths during that period, all but one occurred in these family-based centers.
Dunkley said the state must do something to expedite the appeals process itself. His association has proposed a three-person state panel that makes initial rulings on appeals and encourages an administrative law judge to take swift action in egregious cases.
For now, Yalartai isn't ready to send her kids back to day care. Her husband is staying with the kids during the day.
"It's just hard," she said, "to trust day cares now."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744 Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777