First Steps Learning Center in Mandan was closed this week due to state safety violations.
The North Dakota Department of Human Services revoked First Steps’ early childhood services license Monday.
The day care was found to have multiple violations of required child to staff ratios, incomplete background checks of its providers,
nutritional and safe food handling and cleanliness and upkeep issues, said Jennifer Barry, human services’ early childhood services administrator.
Three calls from the Tribune to First Steps went unanswered and it was not possible to leave messages. When the Tribune went to the facility, no one answered the door Friday afternoon. A home phone number listed for the owner was disconnected. First Steps in Mandan is not affiliated with First Steps Learning Centers in Bismarck.
Under state law, a childcare facility must have one staff member per four children less than 18 months old, one staff member per five children for kids 18 months to 36 months, one staff member per seven 3-year-olds, one staff member per 10 4-year-olds, one staff member per 12 5-year-olds and one staff member per 20 children age 6 or older.
An unlicensed provider caring for more than three infants or six or more children is operating against the law.
Cleanliness and upkeep issues included problems like frayed carpet, sharp edges and leaking water fountains, Barry said.
The department learned of the violations after a concerned parent reported staffing, nutrition and cleanliness issues to Morton County Social Services on Sept. 23, Barry said.
One mother, Jessica Barker, said she enrolled her 4½-month-old son at First Steps, but only left him at the facility for a week in August.
Barker said said as a first-time mom, she thought the facility was “just very unorganized” and “kind of dirty.” The first day she dropped him off there was no one around to show her where to go or answer her questions. It concerned her that there was a new caretaker for her son every day.
The final decision to remove her son from the facility came after Barker came to pick him up and saw dirt and crumbs lying on the floor around him that left her wondering what he may have put in his mouth during the day.
Barry said a licensor was sent to the facility to investigate after the complaint from a parent and the department issued a notice of intention to revoke the facility’s license if improvements were not made.
A second call of concern was made to Morton County Social Services. Over the course of a month, Barry said Human Services made several additional visits, but not enough effort was made toward improvement by the facility.
At the time of closure, there were about 60 children enrolled at First Steps, including part time attendees, Barry said. The facility was licensed for 99 children, making it one of the largest facilities in Mandan.
The facility had five full-time staff members, including the owner Amber Friez, and two part-time staff members, Barry said.
Barry said First Steps has the right to appeal the license revocation within 10 days. If an appeal were filed, the facility would be allowed to remain open until its license expires, barring a suspension by the department related to concern of imminent danger to children. As yet, no appeal has been filed.
Barry said First Steps could reopen under a new operator, but if no appeal is filed the facility will not be able to apply for a new license with Friez as the operator for one year.
Friez took ownership of First Steps in 2011. Barry said there have been minor child safety concerns in the past but nothing of this level before.
Barry said families with children at First Steps have been referred to Child Care Aware for assistance finding new child care providers.
Penny Smith, community relations coordinator for Child Care Aware, said parents were just notified Thursday of the license revocation and none have called for help finding new child care yet. Child Care Aware has a database of all openings at day care facilities in good standing with the state broken down by age.
Barker said it was stressful trying to find replacement childcare for her newborn in such short notice. Her husband had called 12 places in one day and most waiting lists were a year long. She said she was lucky to find a space at Super Kids Jr. Academy at the last minute.
Smith said it always has been difficult finding child care in Bismarck-Mandan, especially infant care. When searching two weeks ago, there was only one opening for infant care in the area.
Mistie Boully, parent services coordinator for Child Care Aware, said only 26 percent of the potential need for childcare is being met in Morton County. She said the number is probably going to be worse than that with First Steps closing. The national recommendation is 50 percent. In Burleigh County, about 42 percent of the need is being met.