SHERIDAN — The Children’s Center on Highland Avenue in Sheridan is under scrutiny regarding its child care and administrative operations. The center’s executive director and board of trustees have been unresponsive to inquiries associated with recent incidents concerning both issues.
A caretaker at the center resigned last month after an episode where she roughly handled a child in her pre-school classroom. Parent Jennifer Duran said the center’s Executive Director Peggy Stanton, was not upfront about the incident.
Duran said she was called to Stanton’s office Nov. 14 and informed her two children were not being successful in the day care’s environment, and she would have to make other child care arrangements. Duran, an elementary school teacher, thought the move was odd because though she had been notified of some behavioral difficulties of one of her children, she said she did not feel as though previous conversations were a logical precursor to her being asked to take her children out of the center.
After the conversation, Duran went to pick up her child.
“Another parent came to me while we were leaving and told me, ‘This little boy needs to be thanked,’ When I asked what for, she said, ‘It’s because of him that Mrs. Jan (Lind) is gone.”
Duran said the parent relayed that the previous day, Lind, the classroom teacher, had roughly grabbed the boy by both arms, lifted him off the ground and moved him to where she wanted him to be. The parent described the contact as “physically manhandling” to Duran.
Duran then went immediately back to Stanton’s office and asked to be told about the previous day’s incident.
“(Stanton) said (Lind) got upset and overreacted,” Duran said, adding she learned Lind had resigned that day. “Peggy made it sound like our son drove (Lind) to have a mental breakdown. She made it sound like she was a seasoned, veteran teacher and the fact she lost it was our fault.”
Duran said she later learned the caregiver in question had gained a stern reputation among several parents, who had noticed her using a harsh, loud voice or even physically moving children in a rough way, and that the behavior had been ongoing for years.
Mejia Williams pulled her child out of the Children’s Center this summer after witnessing ongoing aggressive demeanor from Lind, even though her child was not in that classroom.
“I witnessed a lot of things I’m not comfortable with as a parent,” Williams said.
Duran filed a report with the Department of Family Services as well as the local police. DFS policy precludes commentary on investigations and even verification whether a particular incident is under investigation.
Det. Jerry Rasmussen verified the police investigation revealed that while the conduct was unprofessional and aggressive, it was not criminal in nature.
Melissa Jelly is another former employee of the Children’s Center, but the reason she’s no longer there is quite different.
Jelly believes she was terminated after more than five years working as the Infant Coordinator because she had petitioned the center’s board of trustees about administrative concerns. While the infant and preschool programs are considered largely separate programs within the center, they both fall under Stanton’s supervision.
In January, Jelly wrote a letter to the center’s board of trustees outlining several worrisome trends she had noticed. Jelly was concerned that Stanton was incorrectly logging childcare hours into a computer system in order to get supplemental funding from the state for families that paid a reduced rate for childcare. Jelly said in the letter she felt as though she was being put in a bad position, and the center was at risk for criminal charges.
Jelly’s letter also said Stanton was frequently not present to execute her scheduled duties as director and staff morale suffered as a result. Jelly also questioned why Stanton’s daughter’s cell phone was being paid for by the center and her grandchildren paid a cut rate for daycare.
“I knew when I wrote that there would be a possibility that she would come back and terminate me, but I also felt the board would take the time to look at the evidence I had, but they did not,” Jelly said. “They didn’t even talk to me about it.”
Instead, Jelly said Stanton started withholding information regarding day-to-day operations of the center and stripped Jelly of her administrative authority. May 23, board member Tonya Murner approached Jelly and asked how things had been going. Jelly relayed that communication was insufficient and staff morale was still low.
June 3, Jelly was given a letter of reprimand from Stanton, approved by the board of trustees, for insubordination by speaking to a board member about problems within the center. The letter also stated Jelly would “no longer need to attend board meetings.”
Jelly wrote another letter of rebuttal indicating her desire to respect the center’s chain of authority. She continued to work amidst a strained relationship with her immediate supervisor until she was dismissed in early November. Stanton did not give a reason to Jelly regarding why she was terminated.
Jelly said that while she knew her working relationship wasn’t ideal, she was surprised to be let go.
“I felt like the board had enough respect for me and I had been there long enough that they would be able to see that she was just retaliating, but again, I was wrong,” she said.
Jelly said the problem is the board’s vigilance has grown stagnant.
“Most of the people on the board have been there for 20-plus years,” she said. “They’re friends with (Stanton),” she said adding she feels the priority of the center’s governing body centers around preserving a status quo.
“I think that in their heart, they have the right thing in mind, but I just don’t think they can objectively look at things anymore because they don’t see past that friendship.”
In addition to the questionable managerial style Jelly describes, she said she’s concerned about the center’s clients — the kids.
“When staff morale is down, it affects how they do their jobs,” she said, adding that she saw instances where other caretakers noticed problems but did not feel comfortable addressing them.
“Why bother? There’s nothing you can do,” she said. “Once you’ve gone to the board and they don’ t want to do anything and they won’t listen, what do you do now?”
Stanton declined to comment on Lind and Jelly’s dismissals, indicating she was prohibited from discussing personnel issues. She also declined to discuss the policies of her facility in a general sense and also declined to provide meeting times, names and contact information for the Children’s Center board of trustees, even though the center’s Parent Handbook states a list of board members can be obtained from the director upon request. The handbook also expressly states “aggressive behavior toward provider (sic) or children is unacceptable,” and prohibits physical, emotional and verbal abuse of children as a disciplinary tool. The same handbook recognizes the importance of communication between parents and facility staff.
Children’s Center Board Chair and local Attorney Bob Wyatt indicated he had discussed The Sheridan Press’s inquiry with Stanton and the group had been directed to not comment. It is unclear whether that directive was issued by Wyatt or Stanton. Board members Melana Cummings and Tonya Murner declined to comment when contacted individually. Member Brian Bolton did not respond to a message. Janet Scott did not answer her phone and there was no answering machine at her listed home phone. Other board members are not listed.
DFS Daycare Licensing Coordinator Rachel Huckfeldt confirmed the Children’s Center has had four substantiated state rule violations in the last three years. In two instances, an inspector found the daycare did not have appropriate staffing levels to satisfy a state-mandated ratio. The center was also dinged for having a child improperly restrained while riding in a vehicle and using chemicals in a manner that could contaminate play or food areas. Licensing Supervisor Regien Hasperhoven said Wyoming daycares are generally inspected twice a year, though inspectors revisit a facility when allegations of rule violations arise.
The Children’s Center has a licensed capacity of 189 children and boasts the biggest infant care program in a three-state region.