Child care staff mistreated toddler, investigation finds

Accused workers fired from Williston facility

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Workers at a Williston child care center sprayed water in the face of a 2-year-old child and spun the toddler on play equipment despite the child’s pleas to stop, a state investigation has found.

Kids & Fitness, a child care center at the Sports & Fitness Edge, was cited in August for “inappropriate guidance and discipline techniques,” according to documents obtained from the Child Development Division, the state agency that licenses child care facilities.

The documents did not specify how the child was mistreated. But Kim Keiser, deputy commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, Child Development Division, quoted from records compiled in the case in a written response to questions posed by the Observer.

“Interviews of staff members at the facility disclosed that two staff members had, on at least one occasion, sprayed water at the face of a 2-year-old child, and, on at least one occasion, the child was placed in an Exersaucer and spun after the child clearly indicated wanting to stop,” she quoted the records as saying. An Exersaucer is a device that young children can stand in while playing with toys.

Vermont child care regulations forbid “any form of corporal punishment such as, but not limited to: inflicting mental or emotional punishment such as humiliating, shaming, threatening, or frightening a child.”

Mike Feitelberg, president of Sports & Fitness Edge Inc., said the two employees accused in the case were fired. Feitelberg emphasized that Sports & Fitness Edge went beyond what the state required.

Following the investigation, the Child Care Division mandated that staff members accused of misconduct take a six-hour course and be kept under direct visual supervision.

“We concluded at that time that we would not tolerate conduct such as that,” Feitelberg said. “We took immediate corrective action, which included the termination of those two teachers.”

The child care center also provided staff training in “positive redirection methods” for disciplining children, he said.

Williston resident Kevin McDermott, who has two children, ages 3 and 5, at Kids & Fitness, said he was satisfied with how the child care facility handled the matter, which he felt was an isolated incident.

“We’re real happy with the place,” he said, noting that it has resources that other child care centers don’t offer, particularly the fitness club.

McDermott said he knows the parents of the child who was mistreated, but he declined to comment further on what he had heard about the case. “It’s a touchy subject – my kids are still going there,” he said.

Brigitte Ritchie, whose 6-year-old son attends a half-day session at Kids & Fitness, said her child is in a different program so she felt he was safe. But the incident, which she heard about from other parents, worries her.

“Does it concern me? Yes. It should worry all parents,” Ritchie said.

Some parents sought more information from the state. Three parents called the Child Development Division, looking for details on the case or reassurance the facility was safe, according to records obtained by the Observer. They were encouraged to contact Kids & Fitness staff for more information.

The Child Development Division, which is part of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, launched an investigation after receiving a complaint on Aug. 15 that a child had been mistreated, Keiser said. A state investigator visited the center on Aug. 18 and Aug. 21.

Citing privacy concerns, Feitelberg and Keiser would not identify the child who was improperly disciplined or the child’s parents. Nor would they disclose the sex of the child or the names of the employees accused in the case.

The Observer requested documents compiled during the investigation under the Vermont Public Records Act. Keiser indicated that the files would become public after the 30-day appeal period ended. The newspaper decided to hold the story until the records were available in order to provide a complete account of the violation.

The files released Sept. 22 were censored, with names blacked out and some documents withheld.

The division refused a second request for records that would verify the specific allegations. Christina Strobridge, director of the Child Development Division, said in a written reply to the request that the documents were exempt from disclosure.

The Child Development Division tries to protect child care providers against unwarranted complaints while encouraging the public to report concerns, Keiser wrote in response to a question about how the state balances privacy and the public’s right to know about a child care facility’s record. She said providers accused of a serious violation, as was the case at Kids & Fitness, are required to mail a copy of the site visit field form, which provides information about the allegations.

But the document, a copy of which the state provided to the Observer, said only that two staff members had used “inappropriate guidance and discipline techniques and “inappropriate methods of redirection.”

Kids & Fitness opened in 2001, Feitelberg said. About 20 employees work at the facility.

The state licenses Kids & Fitness as an early childhood program for children ages 6 weeks to 6 years. It is licensed to care for as many as 72 children.

In addition to the Williston facility, Sports & Fitness Edge Inc. owns other fitness clubs in Essex and South Burlington. Child care programs are also operated at those facilities, Feitelberg said.

The recent incident is not the first time the state has found problems at Kids & Fitness.

Last year, regulators discovered that a staff member had not taken a course required for her position, according to state records.

In 2004, Kids & Fitness was cited for failing to check phone messages every 15 minutes as rules mandate and for neglecting to supervise children walking to and from bathrooms, the records show.

Feitelberg said no parents have pulled their child out of the program, including those of the child who was improperly disciplined.

In fact, Feitelberg said his own child continues to attend Kids & Fitness. As a father, he said he is confident that his child is in good hands.

“We are saddened that such isolated incidents took place in our center,” he said in a written statement. “We feel we have responded in a swift and appropriate manner and the integrity of our center has been maintained. We remain a center that has built a reputation on trust and is filled with dedicated, caring staff.”