GRAND FORKS - Audits of North Dakota's and Minnesota's day care systems raise red flags in child care licensing, with problems ranging from leaving children in unsafe care to making data inaccessible for parents.
The North Dakota State Auditor's Office 2017 biennium report of the Department of Human Services (DHS) said flaws in the system are "jeopardizing the health and safety of children."
The department denied there was potential for harm.
"The North Dakota Department of Human Services strives to follow federal and state requirements," said LuWanna Lawrence, a NDDHS spokesperson. "The department appreciates the value of an external review of operations, and undergoes state and federal audits regularly. The 2017 audit report showed no findings jeopardizing the safety of children."
The audit sampled 79 of North Dakota's 1,540 licensed providers, with at least one from each county. The most recent report was published January and spans from 2016 to 2017.
Some providers were licensed or remained licensed after there was proven neglect or abuse, according to the audit. It said children were harmed as a result.
The audit found "an improper balance between ensuring safe quality of child care and supporting child care providers to become licensed and continue operating without meeting minimum requirements."
In nearly one out of five sample cases, the department didn't issue a correction order when providers failed to meet licensing requirements, according to the report. Out of the orders that were issued, nearly 5 percent weren't properly documented.
The department did not issue correction orders when providers failed to meet requirements in nearly 18 percent of the sampled cases, the report said.
The study said 43 percent of child care providers sampled did not have proper background checks, which are required every five years. According to the audit, nearly 41 percent of providers were licensed without filing required paperwork, including safety plans or proof of insurance.
The report said North Dakota's DHS lacked proper procedures to follow through with complaints. The department responded to individual complaints within the audit but mostly promised to create more consistent protocols and systems, according to the audit.
History of flaws
The 2015 audit sparked outrage from officials when it declared providers continued to care for children after the department verified abuse, including "inappropriate touching from adults."
Officials told reporters in 2015 the study contained only anecdotal information, not details about how the problem was addressed.
The audit highlighted 11 providers operating under Memorandums of Understanding, or MOUs, which the department said are issued when allegations rise above the seriousness of a corrective order.
The 2017 report showed continued problems with MOUs and said officials are unable to track how many were issued and what is being done to monitor them.
A 2015 audit said social workers were unable to monitor providers properly because they were assigned too many cases.
Lack of transparency
North Dakota does not list licensing information online, which the state audit said prevents parents from accessing public safety information. It is one of the only states not to have the information publicly posted online.
Confidentiality laws reveal significantly less information than in Minnesota.
The North Dakota audit said the department has yet to comply with the Child Care Development Block Grant Act of 2014, which calls for online access. The 2013 audit recommendations also ask for internet licensing listings.
Licensing information is public record, but right now North Dakotans must contact county offices to check the status of a provider. A request from reporters was returned in four business days.
Minnesota has an online licensing lookup system that shows the reasoning behind corrective actions. If a provider refutes the suspension or revocation, court details are available for free at the Office of Administrative Hearings website.
Google searches of some providers with suspended or revoked licenses still show third-party website listings for their child care services among the top results.
The North Dakota DHS responded to the findings by noting the 2017-19 biennium budget will provide funds to create on online system.
Different standard of guilt
A Roseau, Minn., day care license was revoked in February because the provider was intoxicated while caring for children, a Minnesota Department of Human Services investigation report said.
Documents from the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings said Alissa Bjerklie's license was revoked in February because she was slurring her speech and had bloodshot eyes. A parent who returned to pick up their child allegedly found her asleep and was unable to wake her. The report said her blood alcohol content was above the legal limit to drive.
A DHS social worker told Bjerklie all children were to be removed immediately because her condition put them at risk. The social worker stayed until all children but two were picked up by parents. Upon returning a few hours later, it was determined the two kids were safe with Bjerklie.
A temporary immediate suspension was issued four days later. It's unclear if Bjerklie was caring for children during that time.
While Bjerklie was in violation of state day care licensing provisions, she likely wasn't breaking any laws, Roseau County Social Services Director Dave Anderson said.
The bar for criminal neglect or maltreatment is different than for licensing restrictions. The MDHS said law enforcement and prosecuting attorneys decide whether to press criminal charges.
"When we receive a report that involves serious physical abuse and/or sexual abuse we always cross report to law enforcement," the Minnesota DHS said in a statement. "They choose whether they will investigate it as criminal."