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Kids abused, left unsupervised in Head Start centers run by nonprofit

In Buffalo-area Head Start classrooms, children have been threatened, hit, pushed to the floor and grabbed around the neck by teachers and other staff.

Kids were served food they are allergic to.

They were left alone and unsupervised in classrooms and bathrooms, according to state inspection reports.

Children napped in rooms with no carbon monoxide detectors.

And in some cases, when staff members witnessed a colleague abusing a child, they did not report it to the state hotline, as the law requires.

The federal government pays Community Action Organization, a nonprofit anti-poverty agency, about $28 million a year to educate more than 2,000 Head Start students in Erie and Niagara counties. Organizations in good standing receive automatic renewal of their Head Start grant every five years. For the CAO, that did not happen when it came time for the government to renew its Niagara County grant, which expires in June.

The reason: Three years ago, a 3-year-old slipped out of a Head Start classroom, then out the doors of the DiFrancesco Academy on 24th Street in Niagara Falls, without being noticed. Someone found her outside, in the street.

A spokesman for the federal Administration for Children and Families declined to say which organizations – or even how many – submitted proposals to run the Niagara County Head Start program for the next five years.

“The applications are currently being reviewed and evaluated by objective review panels,” spokesman Patrick Fisher wrote in an email. “ACF anticipates issuing the new grant award in summer 2020.”

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CAO has had the Head Start contract in Erie County for 54 years, but it did not receive an automatic renewal for its Erie County Head Start grant, which ends in February 2021. That’s because federal reviewers ranked it among the lowest 10% of Head Start programs in the country that were evaluated in 2018, based on instructional support for students, emotional support for students and classroom organization.

In response to questions from The Buffalo News, CAO spokesman and board member Michael Johnson, in a written statement, said that the state had determined some allegations to be unfounded, but he would not elaborate on which allegations those were.

He also did not respond to follow-up questions asking him to provide specifics, saying that those incidents involved personnel. He said that a staff member was terminated as a result of one incident that had been substantiated.

"The CAO's Head Start program continuously trains its personnel and demands the highest level of professional performance for the Head Start programs under its umbrella," Johnson said in the statement.

"CAOWNY Head Start/Early Head Start officials believe it is not acceptable to have any child exposed to a negative environment," Johnson said in the statement. "CAO continues to provide high-quality learning environments where children can play and grow, and families are encouraged and supported to build capacity in their families and community."

Kids hit, grabbed by the neck

State inspectors cited CAO for the following corporal punishment violations, among others:

At St. Agatha’s Academy in South Buffalo, a teacher grabbed a boy around the neck, hard enough to leave a red mark, so that he wouldn’t run away from her.

A staff member got angry and hit a child at Grace Academy in Cheektowaga.

At the Ferry Academy in Buffalo, an employee pushed a child to the floor after seeing the child pull another’s hair.

A staff member used “excessive and inappropriate methods with the child, which caused a laceration” at the Langfield Academy in Buffalo. Two years later, at the same center, an employee grabbed a child and tossed them onto a couch.

It’s rare for the state to cite a day care for corporal punishment. From 2016 to 2018, that happened six times at the 35 Head Start centers in Erie County, on-site inspection reports and final inspection letters show. In final inspection letters, corporal punishment was cited 14 times at the other 468 child care programs in the county, according to the state.

Using the state’s Freedom of Information Law, The News obtained inspection reports of local Head Start centers from the state Office of Children and Family Services. The reports offer a brief description of each violation, but few details. Much of the information was redacted, including the names of children and staff members.

Community Action Organization directly operates 29 local Head Start centers. Another six, which educate about 500 children, are run by Holy Cross Head Start but overseen by CAO, meaning that CAO receives the federal grant and is legally responsible and financially accountable.

The harsh physical treatment of children at local Head Start centers is concerning, especially when there are repeated incidents in the building, according to Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia. He developed the system that the federal government uses to evaluate Head Start programs.

Pianta reviewed for The News a summary of violations that the state found at local Head Start centers.

“This seems to be a fairly persistent pattern,” he said. “In the best-run programs, you’ll find situations where a teacher or staff member might inappropriately grab a child and be somewhat harsh or rough. But they don’t happen a lot, is the point.”

Johnson said CAO staff reports any suspected abuse.

"We are required to make a (Child Protective Services) call if staff suspects abuse or maltreatment by a co-worker," he said. "Our goal is to ensure all children are in safe and nurturing environments. The practice is aligned with the theme of transparency in our agency."

He added: "Even regarding incidents not reported to OCFS, our staff investigates, determines whether training, discipline or systemic reforms are appropriate, and take those actions that are warranted."

Teacher threatens to 'whup you'

State inspectors’ reports on CAO's Head Start locations in Erie and Niagara counties paint the picture of an inadequately trained and chronically short-staffed agency that struggles to provide the minimum number of personnel required by law.

L. Nathan Hare, CEO of Community Action Organization, has defended the anti-poverty agency's operations. (News file photo)

The incidents that the state classified as corporal punishment account for just some of the problems that inspectors found when staff members became frustrated with the 3- and 4-year-olds in their care, state inspection records indicate.

One staff member at St. Agatha’s in South Buffalo snatched a child’s lunch tray away while the child was eating and threw it in the garbage.

A teacher told a child at the 1461 Academy on Main Street in Buffalo: “If you don’t stop that, I’m going to take you in the bathroom and whup you.”

A staff member, a state inspector found, “is known to yell at children to the point where they might frighten them” at the George K. Arthur Academy on Genesee Street.

“It’s pretty clear to me the staff are feeling pretty stressed out,” Pianta said. “They either don’t have the emotional skills or the training to deal with kids with challenging behaviors.”

When a pattern of mistreating children emerges, he said, it’s essential that leaders work closely with the staff to make sure they have the training and support they need.

“These circumstances call out how vulnerable these kids are. How vulnerable, in some sense, the staff are,” Pianta said.

Prevent staff burnout, state suggests

In response to some incidents, the state Office of Children and Family Services asked CAO to submit a plan indicating how staff would become better prepared to deal with children.

A 5-year-old’s “challenging behaviors” were “handled inappropriately by an experienced staff person” at the Memorial Temple Academy on Sycamore Street. A state inspector requested that CAO provide the staff with at least three hours of training in working with children with difficult behaviors.

“The purpose here is to make sure that staff are equipped to meet the needs of the children being cared for at the program,” she wrote in boldface type. “Although not required, your plan may include placing additional staff in the rooms.”

In closing, she wrote: “We strongly suggest that the program implement new measures to address the issue of and prevent staff ‘burn out.’ ”

CAO did not always follow up promptly on directives from state inspectors.

At one point, after two children were left alone and unsupervised more than once at the King Urban Life Center on the East Side, the state directed CAO to contact the Child Care Resource Network, a local nonprofit, for help with training.

Four months later, though, CAO still had not taken that step. And that's when a child at the King Urban Life Center fell while trying to sit on a stack of chairs. A staff member reprimanded the child but did not unstack the chairs, a state inspector wrote. Just after the first fall, the child hurt his or her nose while trying to climb on top of the stack of chairs again.

At the Ferry Academy Head Start center, a state inspector found that more than 20 staff members did not have any documentation to indicate that they had completed the mandatory 30 hours of training.

That was not the only problem.

“The information review revealed there is not an adequate number of staff available to consistently cover classrooms,” the inspector wrote. “Operating without a full complement of qualified teaching staff is, at best, detrimental to the quality of care.”

At one Head Start center in Cheektowaga, some children spent part of their days in the main office rather than a classroom because there were not enough teachers available.

Losing track of children

At some Head Start centers, attendance records were often sloppy. The number of children in the classroom did not match the number of children on the attendance roster at times.

Teachers sometimes seemed oblivious to children’s whereabouts.

More than once, a child was left behind in a classroom while the teachers took the rest of the class outside or to another room. At the King Urban Life Center, the teachers in one classroom went to lunch, leaving a preschooler alone in the room until the adults came back after they finished eating.

A state inspector cited 1461 Academy on Main Street for allowing a child to be unsupervised in the girls bathroom. A few days later at the same center, a child slipped out of line during a fire drill and hid in the bathroom, where the child remained during the entire fire drill, according to state reports.

At St. Agatha’s Academy, a “staff person stated they closed their eyes for 30 seconds. As a result, a child sustained what appeared to be a scratch on his stomach from a pair of scissors,” a state inspector wrote.

In the most extreme case, a 3-year-old wandered out of the building, unnoticed by any adults, and was found in the street. That situation in Niagara Falls three years ago prompted the state to fine the DiFrancesco Center $3,500 and suspend its license for a week, until staff received additional training on supervising children.

Carbon monoxide detectors missing, allergies ignored

State regulations require that there be a carbon monoxide detector in every room.

In local Head Start centers, that did not always happen.

State inspectors sometimes found carbon monoxide detectors missing in more than one classroom in the same building. In some cases, inspectors found rooms that had been without a working carbon monoxide detector for long stretches of time.

“There was no carbon monoxide detector in the classroom. Staff advised that they took it out (a week earlier) because it was beeping,” one inspector wrote after visiting the Head Start center in Gowanda.

More than two months went by without carbon monoxide detectors in two classrooms at Grace Academy in Cheektowaga.

On Oct. 10, 2018, an inspector wrote: “Rooms #6 and #7 did not have CO monitors. Director requested from CAO on 8/2/18.”

Rules regarding child allergies also were overlooked by CAO's Head Start staff.

“Child’s allergy was in child’s file, but was not communicated to classroom teacher or kitchen staff,” one inspector wrote after visiting Infant of Prague Academy in Cheektowaga. That child was served a breakfast that included the food they were allergic to.

A few months later at the same Head Start center, another child was served food they were allergic to.

The staff then gave the child medication – but did not inform the Office of Children and Family Services, as required.

That was not the only time that CAO ignored requirements to inform the Office of Children and Family Services of problems. Among the situations it failed to report: an incident that resulted in a fracture to a child’s finger; lack of heat in one of the buildings; and children left unsupervised.

Child care workers in New York State are required to report suspected cases of abuse and maltreatment to the state’s hotline.

But more than a dozen times in three years, CAO's Head Start employees became aware of allegations but failed to report them.

Twice, it was the director of a center who failed to report an allegation.

And six times, Head Start staffers failed to call the hotline when they had seen a child being abused or maltreated by another employee.

Twice within three months, a Head Start staff member saw a fellow employee grab a child – in one case, by the neck, and in another, by the arm – but failed to report it to the state’s child abuse hotline, once at Infant of Prague and once at Langfield Academy.

Both times, a state inspector cited CAO's Head Start program for corporal punishment, as well as for failing to make a report to the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment.

Consequences unclear

Every inspection letter from the state closes with a standard warning: “You should be aware that violation of OCFS regulations may result in the assessment of fines or other enforcement action.”

But it’s not clear exactly what fines and penalties the state has imposed upon CAO.

CAO said in its statement to The News that it has paid six fines since January 2016 for a facility issue, lack of supervision and behavior management. The fines, it said, totaled $6,885.

CAO did not respond to questions about whether the state had imposed any other penalties.

In response to an inquiry from The News, a spokeswoman for the Office of Children and Family Services said in an email that it would take time for the state to gather information on penalties that have been imposed on CAO for violations at Head Start centers. She directed a reporter to submit a Freedom of Information Law request for it.

Upon receiving the newspaper’s request, the state initially said it would provide the information in 20 business days. Once that period elapsed, it sent a letter indicating that it would take up to another six months to compile the information.

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