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Range day care cited for two child maltreatment findings

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VIRGINIA — An Iron Range day care facility is under fire after a state agency found credible two child maltreatment claims, which were detailed in a recent state report.

The findings, made public by the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) on March 15, were based on allegations that established that Quad City Kids Daycare, Inc. owner and supervisor Lorri Johnson engaged in “corporal punishment, including rough handling” of two children on separate occasions.

The DHS report referred to “a supervisory staff person,” and the agency would neither confirm or deny this person as Johnson, but two former Quad City Kids employees and a pair of mothers confirmed Johnson was the subject of the report.

In the report, the DHS concluded Johnson was responsible and “physical abuse occurred,” but the wrongdoing did not rise to the level of “serious” or “recurring.” Johnson was not fined for the substantiated claims of maltreatment, rather the facility was issued correction orders by the state. The state’s findings are subject to appeal.

Meanwhile, Quad City Kids Daycare is currently licensed to operate under Johnson’s ownership and supervision. Multiple calls to the day care seeking comment from Johnson were not returned. But parents, former employees and state reports paint a picture of a day care routinely faced with violations, with few options for guardians within the criminal justice system and the licensing agency when such abuse occurs.

“Daycare should be a safe place full of love and affection — that is what the children deserve,” said Dana Bilben, a mother of two from Biwabik, during an interview earlier this month. Her younger child was one of the two involved in the maltreatment findings against Quad City Kids Daycare. “Daycares are helping raise my children as they spend the majority of the daytime there. They should feel loved, happy and safe.”

Maltreatment allegations launched

On Jan. 18, 2019, the Minnesota DHS received a maltreatment report that triggered an investigation by the agency. Investigations may have several steps including a site visit, interviews, documentation collection and documentation review.

Investigators conducted a site visit at Quad City Kids Daycare on Jan. 25, centered around two separate incidents involving two children, which occurred earlier in the same month.

One case involved Evelyññ, a then-3 year old girl who had been diagnosed with a sensory issue, speech delay and difficulties speaking. She would become frustrated when unable to communicate. Her “behaviors were described as ‘excitable, stubborn, active, wants own way, [and] temper tantrums,’” read the DHS report, citing documentation at Quad City Kids Daycare.

At the time of the incident, Evelyññ did not have a behavioral plan, as was mandated by DHS.

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Janara Maure with her 3-year-old daughter Evelyññ, who was part of a separate child maltreatment finding by the Minnesota Department of Human Services against Quad City Kids Daycare in Mountain Iron.

“I always gave them the option that if it ever got too bad to call me and I’d sit with her,” said Janara Maure, Evelyññ’s mother, during a recent interview. “I would call every day at 10 a.m. to see what was going on and how she was doing.”

State investigators discovered that Evelyññ would be disciplined by being separated from the group, an act against licensing guidelines. She would be taken into Johnson’s office, alone.

According to the DHS report on the maltreatment incident, it was at about 9 a.m. on Jan. 14 or Jan. 15 when Evelyññ was lying on the floor kicking a bookshelf close to a worker and Johnson. She was reportedly not at risk of hurting other children, and the bookshelf was not at risk of tipping over.

Johnson picked Evelyññ up by holding her ponytail and one leg, to which Evelyññ started “screaming and crying.” Walking about 10 feet in this manner, Johnson put Evelyññ on the floor in the center of the classroom and said, “You better stay there,” before walking out of the room.

Evelyññ “‘just sat there’ on the floor and did not move,” according to an interview DHS conducted with a facility staff member.

Jonnie Rewertz, a former teacher’s aide at Quad City Kids, was informed of the incident by a coworker, and said she consulted with the employee about notifying Maure before sending the mother a Facebook message on Jan. 25. Maure later met privately with Rewertz and another employee.

“I wanted to know everything that had happened,” Maure said.

After the meeting, the mother decided to immediately pull Evelyññ from the day care and eventually contacted the Virginia Police Department. Officers forwarded her to the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office in Mountain Iron.

On Jan. 28, Maure filed a report with law enforcement.

After receiving the finalized report from DHS in the mail, Maure posted it on Facebook to inform other parents. Still, she felt the report and reprimands on Quad City Kids weren’t enough.

Maure reached out to Legal Aid through St. Louis County, but learned that they don’t work with such cases. She considered reaching out to a private attorney, but, as a single parent, the fees could be too big of a hurdle.

Maure followed up with the sheriff’s office on March 21, which ultimately declined to press charges against Johnson.

“There was nothing criminal involved in that situation,” said Sgt. Steve Borchers with the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, in an interview, “although there may have been a licensing violation.”

Of most concern to Maure is her daughter’s inability to express herself. She works with vulnerable adults and is frustrated knowing that if she acted in a similar manner to a client, she would be fired.

“I think she should never be able to work with children again,” Maure said.

Maure added: “You should know how to take care of a child full of energy. To put your hands on my child — any child. For you to physically pull her by her hair — I don’t understand that. She should be held accountable.”

Another incident

“It is really hard to find openings in day cares,” Bilben said, while sitting down to talk about her two boys, Kyan and Asher. Kyan has been diagnosed with ADHD and Asher has a speech delay. At the age of 2, he is just starting to say “mom” and “dad.”

The family lives in Biwabik, but Bilben works in Virginia. She found the location of Quad City Kids Daycare, and the fact there were openings for both her sons, ideal.

In January, Asher was 22 months old and his behaviors were described as “happy, cooperative, active, wants own way, [and] temper tantrums,” according to a DHS report, citing documentation during the site visit at Quad City Kids Daycare. He was a full-time child in the toddler room.

On an unknown date in December 2018 or January 2019, according to state investigators, Asher was sitting next to his cot “screaming,” as nap time was about to start. It was a common action when he refused a nap.

According to the DHS report, Johnson walked into the room, picked Asher up by the back of his shirt without holding any other part of him, put him on his cot “hard” and told him, “Go to sleep.”

This made the child scream more, and Johnson left the room without saying anything else.

One of the toddler room employees was told about the incident after Johnson left the room and checked Asher for injuries, but did not see any. Two weeks later, one of the toddler room workers reached out to Bilben through Facebook to notify her of the incident.

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Dana Bilben, a mother of two from Biwabik, whose 22-month-old Asher was part of a child maltreatment finding by the Minnesota Department of Human Services while he was at Quad City Kids Daycare in Mountain Iron.

Bilben said she immediately removed both of her children from the day care and filed a report with the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office in Mountain Iron on Jan 30.

“He is just a vulnerable child who can’t take care of himself. He couldn’t even talk,” she said. “I am heartbroken this happened to him. I’m thinking of him crying — she does that — he cries louder and she just walked away and left him. No one was there to comfort my sweet little boy.”

A series of corrections

Quad City Kids Daycare sits on the border of Virginia and Mountain Iron at 816 16th Ave. S. The facility has an active license to serve 82 children from infant to school age. It was licensed by DHS on Feb. 13, 2006, and most recently renewed on Feb. 15, 2019.

The DHS website shows licensing actions, correction orders and maltreatment investigation memorandums for the past four years. Eight such items are listed for Quad City Kids Daycare, including one fine order, one maltreatment investigative memorandum and six correction orders with multiple violations each.

Since opening, the day care received annual correction orders from 2007-2009, in 2011, in 2013 and again from 2015-2019. Fine orders were issued in 2007 and 2019 for not completing employee background studies. Each time the day care was fined $200. There were three total instances of background study issues, but one was self-corrected.

“Correction orders are issued when a licensor determines that a rule or standard has been violated, so there is no limit on how many times a violation may be cited and corrective action issued,” according to a DHS spokesperson via email. “There is no set number of licensing actions that determine what the subsequent action will be. It is dependent on evaluation of the program’s history of noncompliance and takes into account the nature, severity, and chronicity of violations issued, as well as the effect of the violations on the health, safety or rights of people served by the program.”

The DHS spokesperson also wrote that the state agency did not conduct licensing reviews or inspections in 2010, 2012 or 2014. Reviews were completed in 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2019.

Each time an inspection was completed, correction orders were given. Quad City Kids Daycare had four correction orders from DHS over the past four years, not including those associated with the maltreatment findings. For comparison, other facilities in the area had only one correction order and one fine listed in the last four years.

Rewertz was a full-time teacher’s aide at Quad City Kids Daycare for more than a year.

While there, she found Johnson’s rough reactions toward children to be habitual, stating she would often “yell at children and threaten to take them to her office.”

“We aren’t supposed to do that,” Rewertz said in a recent interview. “We had a meeting about not sending kids to the office. That is singling them out … we can only redirect.”

Quad City Kids Daycare received a correction order on June 16, 2015, for a violation regarding separating children. “The license holder did not have a behavior guidance policy prohibiting the subjection of children to,” the order states, among other things “...separation from the group except within rule guidelines.”

Another violation concerning separations was issued on March 15 following the recent maltreatment investigation. Yet another violation stated the separation issues were not noted in a daily log.

“Children who were being separated from the group did not remain in an unenclosed part of the classroom within continuous sight and hearing of a program staff person,” DHS reported.

‘Abuse’ but not ‘serious’

After receiving the reports of child maltreatment at Quad City Kids Daycare, the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office investigated claims from Maure and Bilben. Parents were interviewed and it was reported that their children did not have any injuries as a result of the incidents.

“Nothing described was at the level of criminal,” Borchers said, adding that maltreatment would have to be similar to fifth-degree assault to be criminally prosecuted.

Fifth-degree assault, as defined by state statute, can be a misdemeanor offense if a person “commits an act with an intent to cause fear in another of immediate bodily harm or death,” or “intentionally inflicts or attempt to inflict bodily harm upon another.”

The sheriff’s office determined Johnson’s action did not rise to a criminal level in either case.

“She saw a child misbehaving and took action that wasn’t allowed by the license in the state of Minnesota,” Borchers said of the incidents. “It is a maltreatment on the license.”

DHS conducted the site visit on Jan. 25, followed by a documentation review and interviews with family members of the children, staff and Johnson. The agency determined “physical abuse occurred” and Johnson was responsible for the maltreatment of both children, but added the abuse she was responsible for “did not meet statutory criteria to be determined as recurring or serious.”

DHS also cited four employees, who as mandated reporters of maltreatment and abuse, had waited several days before reporting the incidents.

Despite the agency’s findings, Johnson and Quad City Kids Daycare have not lost their license to operate and are not facing suspension, but they were warned that further substantiated maltreatment claims — whether they qualify as serious or not — would automatically meet the criteria to be considered recurring and could result in disqualification of Johnson from providing direct care services.

“The Department takes all allegations of maltreatment seriously,” a DHS spokesperson wrote in a statement. “It’s unacceptable that a caretaker would harm a child they are trusted to care for. When an investigation finds maltreatment, the department takes action based on Minnesota laws.”

The spokesperson continued, “In some circumstances, if DHS determines serious or recurring maltreatment occurred or the facility was responsible, a more serious action against a staff person or against the program license may be taken, including ordering a staff person removed from direct care, placing the center on conditional license or for the most serious issues, revoking the license.”

Following the findings, according to the DHS report, Quad City Kids Daycare conducted an internal review that “determined policies and procedures were adequate and followed.” All staff were provided with additional training.

“It really frustrates me,” Maure said. “Why not take action now? It’s not fair.”

Bilben admits that she has lost trust in day cares. While both families found new day cares, the transition took time, and Bilben’s partner was forced to take time off work while they searched for a new provider.

“I wish I could stay at home with my kids, but that just isn’t possible,” she said.

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