Stepping Stones Learning Center in Sherman said it has addressed numerous safety concerns and violations after the facility was named in a yearlong news investigation of Texas child care centers that remained open despite high numbers of violations.


The Austin American-Statesman reported the Sherman facility was cited for 181 safety violations over a three-year period. Infractions included “uncovered electrical outlets, refusing to give children water during snacks, bugs in the bathroom and out-of-control children.” The newspaper’s report found the average Texas child care center was cited for nine violations, but Stepping Stones was one of 16 facilities across the state that had 100 or more violations and remained operational as of early November.


“We are working on the violations,” Stepping Stones Director Joann Thomas said Thursday. “Things are a lot better and (Texas Child Care) licensing is pleased with the progress we are making.”


Stepping Stones, which is located in the 1500 block of Baker Road, opened in 2001. Thomas said the facility currently serves 70 children, who range in age from infancy to 13 years old, and services are provided by 10 staff members. A spokesperson for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the Child Care Licensing division, was not immediately able to verify Thomas’ claims Thursday that her facility’s improvements were satisfactory to the agency.


According to the HHS state website, division representatives conduct at least one unannounced inspection of licensed child care operations each year.


“Licensing staff follows up on all deficiencies to ensure deficiencies are corrected,” the website stated. “If deficiencies are of such a serious nature that the health and safety of the children is threatened, enforcement actions such as administrative penalties, evaluation, probation, suspension or revocation of the permit may be warranted.”


Addressing the specific infractions included in the Statesman’s report, Thomas said Stepping Stones had covered all the facility’s electrical outlets and had ensured that all children had access to water during the center’s snack time. Thomas said the violation regarding bugs in the bathroom area stemmed from a persistent fruit fly infestation, and the issue has since been solved. The director said the “out-of control children” violation followed a review of the center’s 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds and was related to unpermitted running inside the building.


“They don’t understand that it’s not OK to run,” Thomas said of the young children. “They have that energy and they have to get it out somewhere. That’s all it is, but we worked on that, got them settled down and they are very much under control.”


But Thomas and at least one other owner, whose Austin-area child care center was cited by the state and who spoke to the Statesman, expressed concern over how violations were assessed.


“Several of us do, because it’s all based on how the (licensing) representative decides things are supposed to be done,” Thomas said of the way in which the Child Care Licensing division recorded infractions. “Regulations are not black and white. There’s a lot of interpretation that can be done and it makes it extremely difficult, sometimes, for us to follow the regulations.”


Despite the past violations against Stepping Stones, Thomas said parents and families continued to express support for the local child care center and largely approved of its improvement efforts.


“They’re happy and they’re continuing to stay with us,” Thomas said. “So, I think we’ve done a real good job in continuing to get things addressed and done.”


The Statesman’s corporate owner, GateHouse Media, also owns the Texoma Marketing and Media Group, which publishes the Herald Democrat. The Statesman’s full report into cited child care facilities and state oversight is available on its website and at http://gatehousenews.com/unwatched/overview/site/statesman.com, and is slated to be published in Sunday’s edition of the Herald Democrat.