The scar sits just above Saige’s left eyebrow. The toddler got it in September at her daycare located at Community Christian Academy in Lowell.
Saige’s mother says a teacher told her the toddler was running from another child and collided with a chair.
“She said she had a bruise above her eye,” Marika Hamilton, Saige’s mother, said.
But when emergency room doctors removed the bandages, Hamilton's heart sank.
“We basically saw a hole in her head. It was a deep gash, not a bruise,” Hamilton said.
Saige needed seven stitches and Hamilton said the little girl had to be monitored at Children’s Hospital Boston for a concussion.
Frustrated by what she considered the daycare’s inadequate response, Hamilton called every state agency she could think of to find out who they answered to.
What she found was a system of murky oversight and little accountability.
We asked her whether she knew whether the daycare was licensed when she chose it. She says she did not, but assumed any daycare would have to be overseen by the state.
Since 1993, the daycare at Community Christian Academy has been exempt from the state requirement that young child care centers apply for and receive a state license to operate. Along with that license comes a host of requirements, regulations, and inspections.
Unlike the more than 8,000 daycares regulated by the state’s Department of Early Education and Care, exempt programs are small family daycares or part of a religious, public or private school that argue they don’t need state intervention.
Other states are making major reforms to oversight of their early childhood care systems after deaths and injuries of children, but as the NBC10 Boston Investigators found, Massachusetts may be turning a blind eye to risks.
Bill Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care represents licensed childcare centers.
He said all daycare centers should be strictly, and equally, regulated.
“The state knows they exist but doesn’t know what’s happening in there,” he said.
The pastor at Community Christian Academy would not talk with us on camera or allow us to tour the daycare.
But he insisted what happened with Saige was an accident. Hamilton said an investigator from the Department of Children and Families reached the same conclusion.
But except for that complaint Hamilton filed with DCF, the NBC10 Boston Investigators could find no government agency—not the local health department, not the Lowell School Department, not one state body—that had put eyes on the daycare or the children it cares for since it was granted its exemption 25 years ago.
Eddy said he thought that left the kids in license-exempt programs “off the radar.”
“And that just shouldn’t be in a state like Massachusetts,” he said.
Massachusetts is hailed as a national model for its strict licensing requirements, but when it comes to the exempt programs, the difference is stunning. Unlike the licensed centers, license-exempt centers are not required to:
• Train staff in first aid or CPR
• Have appropriate staff-to-child ratios
• Run background checks
• Train to prevent Shaken Baby Syndrome
• Train for safe sleep practices
• And perhaps most importantly, they are not required to train staff to recognize and report abuse or neglect.
“So many parents have put their trust in these programs,” Eddy said. “And whether that trust is warranted, who knows?”
How many kids we’re talking about is anyone’s guess. EEC declined our request for an interview, but told us the law doesn’t require exempt programs to even tell the state they exist.
EEC does not keep a comprehensive list of those that voluntarily come forward seeking exemptions, and the letters and applications are not kept at a central location. Rather, they are scattered among five regional offices.
EEC said in a statement it “has high standards for child care licensure in the Commonwealth and currently oversees approximately 9,000 licensed programs as outlined by Massachusetts state law, to ensure they are in compliance with all required health, safety and quality standards. The Department publishes a list of licensed programs, provides tips for parents on choosing child care, and encourages families to contact any of our licensing offices across the state to find out about a program’s licensing history.”
To try to feel out the scope of the issue, the NBC10 Boston Investigators went to each of the regional offices, reading and scanning the documents ourselves.
So far, NBC10 Boston found nearly 500 exemptions and spotted a number of red flags, including one daycare that was denied exemption but continued operated illegally without a license for 10 years with not a word or visit from the state.
“We can’t act if we don’t know about it and that’s the critical piece,” said Maria Mossaides, the Massachusetts state child advocate.
Child welfare agencies count dozens of children who have been abused, hurt or have died in exempt programs nationwide.
Here at home, a newborn baby died in Mendon last year after staff left the infant alone on its belly. They had not been trained in safe sleep practices.
According to the state investigation, the Mendon daycare owner rightly pointed to the decades-old law and told EEC staff it had no authority to investigate the death or order changes to the program.
Several school associations told the NBC10 Boston Investigators that child safety is their priority, regardless of licensing.
The accreditation director of the Association of Independent Schools of New England said in a statement, “We rely on our member schools to be knowledgeable of and abide by any applicable state regulations/requirements which apply to them, based on the populations of students they serve and the communities in which they operate. Of primary importance to AISNE is that our schools share a commitment to safeguard the emotional and physical health and safety of their students at all times, while fulfilling their unique educational missions.”
And they abide by “applicable state regulations.”
The state doesn’t have data to show a large number of incidents at exempt daycares, but say underreporting is a constant challenge.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Mossaides said. And not knowing “could place a child at tremendous risk.”
Marika Hamilton hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“More has got to be done,” she said.
Federal requirements just got stricter than the state’s requirements. The EEC now must visit any exempt program that receives federal funding. However, because exempt programs don’t have to report themselves, it is unclear what number of all the exempt programs must be monitored from now on.
The EEC doesn’t have a firm timeline for when they’ll start their visits but says it will be sometime next year. Even with the visits, the EEC still won’t have the authority to enforce any other regulations.
The EEC publishes a list of licensed programs and “tips for choosing child care” on its website at mass.gov/EEC. EEC encourages families to contact any of EEC’s licensing offices across the state to find out about a program’s licensing history or a licensed program’s current status with EEC.