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Child care center faces more lawsuits alleging abuse by workers

ST. PETERSBURG — Infant room B at Clearwater KinderCare could be a scary place. A caregiver broke a 10-month-old boy's leg while changing his diaper there in 2006. And during an investigation of that incident, other workers alleged a pattern of abuse by that caregiver.

Now, five months after that boy's parents won a $3 million verdict against KinderCare Learning Centers and its owner, Knowledge Learning Corp., parents of four more children have filed suits against the companies that allege abuse by the same caregiver.

And while the fallout from that incident continues, records show that problems lingered well beyond 2006. There were other allegations of abuse as recently as two years ago, and the center's license was on probationary status for several months in 2008 for a series of violations.

Knowledge Learning Corp. didn't make a formal statement last week. John Fread, head of public relations for Knowledge Learning Corp., said he wasn't able to do so because the company hasn't had time to review the suits and doesn't have current information about the families involved.

"Obviously, we're treating this very seriously," Fread said.

The caregiver, Stacey Jo Doty, is a defendant in the recent suits, all filed Dec. 30. She was fired after the September 2006 incident involving the 10-month-old boy. Doty, now 35, told her boss that the boy's left thighbone was broken when she pushed his leg up and over harder than usual while changing him, according to a report by the Pinellas County License Board.

Doty was arrested on a charge of aggravated child abuse in connection with that incident. In March 2008, she pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of felony child abuse. She was sentenced to just under a year in Pinellas County Jail, followed by three years' probation. County court records showed she was released from jail in November 2008.

Doty didn't return a call seeking comment on Tuesday. After a reporter made a second call to her on Wednesday, a man answered the phone and said, "Don't call here. No comment," before hanging up.

The four recent suits allege negligence on several grounds, including claims that KinderCare failed to follow proper procedures and address allegations of abuse.

Specific behavior or injuries are not detailed. But the complaints claim that the children suffered physical and mental repercussions from abuse at the center several years ago.

The center at 3245 Ulmerton Road is now known as the Clearwater Children's Learning Center. Fread said it was renamed when it was relicensed in 2007 under the parent company, which is based in Oregon. Despite its name, the center is actually on the northern edge of St. Petersburg near Largo.

During investigations in 2006, workers at the center told the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and Pinellas County License Board about several other incidents involving Doty.

They claimed she intentionally dropped a clipboard on a 2-year-old's hand and routinely dropped infants into their cribs.

"Usually, Stacey (Doty) was good and loving. She was close with the kids and then just when she got stressing, just then she would get aggressive," former worker Tammy Gulley said in a 2008 deposition.

In one incident, according to Gulley, Doty allegedly picked up a baby girl by her arm and dropped her into a crib, causing the baby to hit her head on a plastic headboard, according to Sheriff's Office and licensing agency reports.

That girl's parents, Patrick and Denise Sanders, filed one of the recent suits on behalf of their daughter.

In 2006, a couple of other parents who filed the recent suits told law enforcement about bumps and bruises they noticed on their babies, a sheriff's report said.

One of those mothers, Leanna Wagner, remembered a few incidents, including one where her daughter had a "busted lip," the report said. The center informed her first that a bookshelf fell on her daughter and later that her daughter bumped her lip on the bookshelf, she said.

Another mom, Tammy Torrey, told authorities she noticed a bump or bruise on her infant son's face. The center informed her that her son was jumping in his crib and fell, she said.

The recent suits also list a former center director, Sharon Bailey, and another former caregiver, Heidi Laplant, as defendants. No charges were filed against either. Laplant was fired after the 2006 incident, according to report by the license board.

Laplant left Doty alone with six babies the day the 10-month old's leg was broken, according to court records in the first suit filed in December 2007 by Deon and April Esterhuizen. Two adults are required for that many infants under 1 year old. The suit also alleged that Laplant had a habit of abandoning Doty.

"Management never did a thing about it," said Justin C. Johnson, the St. Petersburg lawyer who represented the Esterhuizens as well as the parents in the recent suits.

The center was reprimanded for discipline of children and failure reporting incidents as recently as two years ago, according to license board records. In February 2008, officials fined the center $200 for inappropriate discipline after learning a worker "slammed a 2- year-old down on a cement walkway" and "flung" two young girls onto playground mulch.

A few months later, a report noted that the center failed to document those incidents and another in May 2008, when a 1-year-old boy wandered off alone near the building. A $250 fine was issued for that incident. The agency issued the center a temporary permit from February through August of that year and a probationary license after that. The center was issued a regular license a year ago. And by May 2009, a licensing program supervisor wrote the center and informed its director that the center had worked to clean up its act.

The Esterhuizens' son is now 4. In November, the parents and the child care chain entered a confidential settlement that involved the purchase of an annuity for the boy that included a guaranteed payout of $3.67 million and a projected payout, based on normal life expectancy, of $6.3 million, according to court records in the case.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Child care center faces more lawsuits alleging abuse by workers 01/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 1:51pm]

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