The Star Tribune's Pulitzer Prize-winning series on deaths in home-based child care actually started because of a shocking report about a licensed day care center. It took Minnesota five years to shut down the Arena Early Learning Center in Brooklyn Center, despite a long list of safety violations.
Our request for child care data following that story in early 2012 is what led us to the disparity in deaths taking place in licensed homes. And it resulted in a dozen or so stories examining the problems such as overcrowding and safe-sleep violations that existed in some of those homes.
But there is an interesting "rest of" story about that shuttered Arena day care center that never got told.
In addition to closing Arena for a long list of safety violations, the Minnesota Department of Human Services determined that the center's director, Antonio Smith, should have no contact with children in care. At the time, the trade group for child care centers called Arena one of the worst in Minnesota.
"We often said, 'Why is this program still open? How could this be possible?" said Chad Dunkley, president of the Minnesota ChildCare Association, in a Star Tribune story early last year.
But the center didn't stay closed for long. Alberta Smith owned two other daycares under the name Atrebla (the reverse of Alberta) in south and north Minneapolis. And she moved the north Minneapolis day-care center directed by Gershon Smith to the old Arena site. (Former employees of the day cares told me that Alberta is mother to Antonio and Gershon.)
The former Arena facility re-opened last summer as Atrebla, and resumed operations as a day-care provider on weekdays, nights and weekends. Such round-the-clock daycare is rare. Parents working night-shifts have told me they are often desperate to find it, regardless of quality.
Problems followed. In a Sept. 4 correction order, the state informed Alberta Smith that her center was being fined for a number of violations -- some similar to those that piled up over time and forced the Arena day care to shut down. There was no documented evidence that three workers were trained in the prevention of shaken baby syndrome. Rooms were understaffed on the weekends. And children as young as two and as old as seven were mixed together -- something that is allowed in family child care but not in centers that are subject to more stringent safety and child development regulations.
More problems were found in an Oct. 8 inspection, but the provider paid the fines and provided documentation that the errors were corrected, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
Today, the Atrebla north facility in Brooklyn Center is closed and its doors are locked -- though the Atrebla sign is still up and the inside still appears furnished. The phone for the center is disconnected. I called Alberta Smith to find out what happened and why the center is once again closed. She declined comment and hung up.