- Associated Press - Saturday, November 14, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Nearly 60 child care homes statewide have been forced to close since legislators passed a law last year allowing inspectors to make unannounced visits, and dozens more have been targeted for closure, according to the Department of Social Services.

Leigh Bolick, director of the agency’s early care division, said the law helps protect children.

“We’re thrilled to go out,” she said. “We’re basically going to ensure the health and safety of kids while their parents are at work.”

Before July 2014, social workers had no authority to step inside a day care registered for fewer than seven children unless someone filed a complaint. Such homes represent the bulk of day cares operating in South Carolina.

The law was changed following the February 2014 death of a 3-month-old girl who suffocated in a crib at a Greenville County day care. Owner Pamela Wood insisted she was watching only six children, but deputies found 14 other children hiding in the basement, two kids unsupervised in a bedroom where a loaded gun sat on a bookshelf and another toddler no one was watching in the backyard, according to arrest warrants.

Wood pleaded guilty child neglect and other charges and was sentenced to 18 months of house arrest, five years of probation and 20 days of public service.

The law that passed the Legislature unanimously allows one unannounced inspection yearly at registered child care homes.

According to DSS, all such homes have since been inspected. DSS began the visits in October 2014, starting in the Greenville area. Between May and September, the agency hired 21 employees specifically to conduct the inspections.

After the agency mailed an announcement of the law change, some day care owners voluntarily closed before an inspector could arrive. There are 1,001 day care homes statewide registered to keep up to six children, 258 fewer than when the law passed.

Bolick said the agency gives a day care owner 90 days to fix problems found during an unannounced visit. During those months, the inspector returns weekly.

“Unless something is really, really egregious, we really try to work with a provider to fix it,” she said.

To owners who don’t, DSS sends a letter informing them their registration is being withdrawn.

According to DSS, 56 day care homes have been closed so far; 25 others are in the appeals process. The facility can remain open throughout that process, which can end up in Administrative Law Court.

Most of the 56 were due to the facility continuing to keep more than six children, Bolick said.

The agency did not answer questions on how many children were kept at those day cares or provide a list of those shuttered.

While the agency can revoke a registration, it can’t by law access names of the children’s parents, so the agency can’t notify them. DSS must rely on the day care owner explaining the situation. Inspectors go back to verify the facility’s closed, Bolick said.

Conducting annual inspections was among recommendations made earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after an audit of 20 day care homes in Charleston, Greenville and Richland counties last year. Auditor Truman Mayfield said the report reflects the criteria in place when the inspections occurred.

Among instances of noncompliance with state guidelines, auditors found broken and dirty toys, stairs lacking handrails, garbage within the reach of children and unclean kitchen surfaces.

“We didn’t find anything I would call egregious,” Mayfield said. “We didn’t find anything that would put children in immediate harm where we would feel the need to remove the children.”

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