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A Times Editorial

Ignoring the red flags

How does someone with a record of 16 arrests, multiple drug convictions and red flags a mile long manage to still finagle the government's permission to operate a child care facility? Months after it should have stepped in, Hillsborough County finally moved on Friday to close Just for Kids Day Care center. The state never should have given the operator the opportunity to obtain a day care license, and the county should have intervened much sooner to shut her down.

Tampa police arrested the operator, Dorothy Ann Sampson-Monroe, on Wednesday, charging her with hitting four children, ages 3 to 5, on their buttocks, legs and faces. Sampson-Monroe voluntarily gave up her license to operate a day care facility in 2005 after police accused her of shaking a baby and bruising his brain. But prosecutors dropped the charge after failing to pin down a time frame on when the injury occurred. Sampson-Monroe was free to work in child care again. Thank the bureaucracy.

State records show Sampson-Monroe, 47, has been arrested 16 times in Florida. In 1991, a judge sentenced her to two years in prison on felony cocaine charges. Four years later, another drug conviction followed. Florida law disqualifies people from getting a child care license if they have been convicted of serious crimes. But exemptions are granted, and the state Department of Children and Families inexplicably gave her one in 2005. In her application, Sampson-Monroe claimed she had changed her ways and become "a woman of God." Months after winning the exemption from the state and obtaining a license from the county, she was charged with shaking a baby.

DCF and the county said the collapse of the criminal case involving the shaken baby made it impossible to yank her license, because state authorities need a criminal conviction to revoke an exemption. The Legislature needs to give DCF and the counties, such as Hillsborough and Pinellas, that license day care more discretion to rescind a license. The bar of a criminal conviction is too high. Regulators should be able to look at the totality of an applicant and individual circumstances and draw reasonable conclusions about child safety.

Regardless of the state exemption for licenses, county officials documented problems with Sampson-Monroe for months and were not aggressive in holding her to operating standards. Records show that from the month Just Kids was licensed in January, Sampson-Monroe was resistant to regulators. She reportedly removed papers from files pulled by county inspectors, and made clear she would not cooperate with licensing officials. In May, an inspector reported that nails were protruding from boards on the playground, sleeping areas had a temperature of 91 degrees and at least three caregivers had not completed background checks. The county belatedly ordered the facility closed Friday — not out of safety concerns, but because it is unclear whether Sampson-Monroe owns it. County officials said there were three children at the center Monday despite the closure order.

Hillsborough needs to quit playing games and close the center immediately while county officials, criminal investigators and DCF review the latest allegations. There should not be any wiggle room when the government bans a child care operator from working pending the outcome of investigations into abuse and questionable business practices.

Ignoring the red flags 06/22/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 22, 2009 7:07pm]
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