A troubled Hastings day-care center that lost its license has reopened under the ownership of a family member with a new license, angering a group of residents concerned about child safety — including the parent of a child who was bitten by a teacher there in 2016.
The situation has raised questions about who can take over, and be licensed to run, a business that the state had shuttered due to excessive violations.
Owners of Hillside Learning Center, which had racked up 60 citations from the Department of Human Services (DHS) since 2010, agreed to surrender their license by March 1 after settling with the state last fall. Under the settlement agreement, the center could reopen under a newly licensed owner.
Jeremy Moore, son-in-law of the previous owner and husband of the previous director, reopened the facility on March 7 with a license in his name. Moore had worked at the center in various jobs, but hadn't been involved in its operation.
"The deal is, I'm a whole new business," he said. "We want to move forward."
A teacher at Hillside bit a child in August 2016, the only confirmed instance there of child maltreatment, state records show. The center also was cited for failing to do employee background checks, record-keeping violations, putting too many kids in a room with too few staffers, employing an aide who used a "tone of voice that frightened children" and lying to state officials about employees' roles.
Moore labeled as "defamatory" allegations of child abuse against the center on social media. He said he runs a family-oriented quality school where kids "are extremely loved," and that he's looking forward to putting problems behind him and starting fresh.
Moore's mother-in-law, Swarna Peris, started the day care more than 25 years ago and continues to teach there but can't serve in a leadership position, a condition of the settlement. The previous director, Moore's wife, Naomi, can't work at Hillside or take a leadership role at another DHS-licensed operation for five years.
Moore said the school, which is licensed to enroll 80 kids, has lost only a few customers because of the controversy. He declined to give current enrollment numbers.
Much of the community frustration, expressed in online petitions signed by more than 800 people that call for closing of the day care, centers around the 2016 incident when a teacher at Hillside bit an autistic 6-year-old boy.
The teacher, Christine Neubauer of Red Wing, said the boy bit her first after she restrained him. A staff member interviewed by the state said there was a hole in her shirt and that she was holding a paper towel over the bite mark she said she had received.
But the boy's mother, Melissa Kirchhof, said there was no evidence confirming that. Her son, Jaxson, is in therapy as a result of the incident, she said.
"What's important to me is that this day care doesn't have access to children anymore," Kirchhof said.
Kirchhof said she's worried about other families who don't know about the day care's history. Moore "had to have seen all these violations," she said. "So if we're going to hand the day care over to him, what's going to be different?"
Moore said he's sorry the boy was bitten but that it wasn't the day care center's fault. Neubauer, who pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor, was fired immediately, he said. She did not return a call for comment.
'They continue to stay open'
It isn't uncommon to find violations when inspecting the state's 10,100 licensed day care programs and centers, said Carolyn Ham, inspector general at DHS. The department, according to its website, revokes licenses for "serious or chronic licensing violations"; in 2017, that amounted to 95 across the state.
But Ham said there was nothing in the law that may prevent a new owner from applying for a program at an existing site, "even troubled ones like in this case. What we can do is evaluate the new applicant to the extent allowed by law."
Hillside has its defenders. Mary Moe, who has taught at the center since 1999 when it was Hastings Montessori, said it was a safe place and that she was saddened that it had lost its license.
"There's nothing to shut down — it's perfect," she said. "People feeling negative should really come talk to us."
But some residents aren't convinced and said they will continue to fight against the day care's operation.
Heather Mainz said she learned that Hillside had its license revoked while researching day care options for a friend. She posted information about it on her Facebook page and has advocated for its closure ever since.
There's a reason the state took away the license, Mainz said, "yet they still continue to get a new license and stay open. That bothers me."
Kirchhof, who said her four kids will never go to day care anywhere again, said the problem will be solved only if Hastings residents get involved.
"Maybe as a society, if we can bring that awareness, then we can do some good," Kirchhof said. "It's the only way I know how to fight back."