Bright Beginnings: Violations galore vex center

Last August, Heather Williams enrolled her two children, Sarah and Alex, at the Mill Creek branch of Bright Beginnings Preschool, where, she emailed me, they received "excellent care and nurturing. Thanks to the guidance of Miss Caroline and Mrs. Lorraine, Sarah is more than ready to start kindergarten this fall."

Alex, however, who was 10 months old when he started at Bright Beginnings, didn't fare as well; he experienced a total of 11 employees.

Over the course of his 10 months at the center, Alex was cared for by "Miss Nancy, Miss Angela, Miss Julia, Miss Jennifer, Miss Nicole, Miss Julie, Miss Holly, Miss Pat, Miss Amy, Miss Susan, and Miss Barbara." Whew!

"This," Williams notes, "is where my opinion of Bright Beginnings deteriorates.

"Each time a caregiver left Bright Beginnings," she asserts, "a licensing violation occurred: too many kids and not enough adults."

Williams also claims that she came upon a letter from the Department of Social Services (DSS) "hidden behind fliers and handouts" on a bulletin board, "even though bold print declared the letter must be posted in plain view of the parents."

Whether the letter was indeed posted in a less-than-obvious spot, I confirmed its existence. In fact, a Freedom of Information Act request to DSS resulted in 120-plus pages' worth of violation notices, inspection summaries, and certified letters. All four locations of the school– Mill Creek, Earlysville, Crozet, and Forest Lakes– are represented; although a wide variety of other, sometimes trivial, infractions appear, inadequate staffing is cited in report after report.

The Forest Lakes facility was put on probation in July 2001 and fined $500; it was placed on probation again in September 2002 and fined $1,000. In both instances, inadequate staffing was the cause. Forest Lakes will remain on probation until September 23, 2003. The Mill Creek center was put on probation for one year in March 2002– again because of improper staffing ratios– and fined $1,000.

With one exception, the documents I received cover only the last three years. The exception was a 1999 letter to Bright Beginnings after the Earlysville center had been fined $500 for inadequate staffing and $500 for a headline-grabbing incident in which a child wandered away from the center and into traffic on Earlysville Road.

Like inadequate staffing, another set of repeat violations concerns the amount and type of food Bright Beginnings serves. A March 2001 violation notice for the Earlysville center stated that food servings were not adequate, and the center agreed that the situation would be rectified. The following month, however, another violation notice was issued– for the same infraction.

For 10 children aged two to five-and-a-half, the inspector stated, lunch consisted of "22 fish sticks, 2 cups total of green peas and 1 3/4 cups of canned peaches. Approximately 2 oz of milk was served per child. This was not an adequate amount of food or milk." Once again, the center agreed to improve.

During the March 2001 visit, the center also promised to "change the wording" on a sign outside that said the facility was "nationally accredited"– which it hadn't been since 1999.

When asked whether Bright Beginnings' record of violations was higher than average for this region, DSS Licensing Administrator Chris Fracher replied, "I can't comment on that."

Parent Williams claims that owner Kathe Petchel is "impossible to reach by phone" and "unavailable to the people whose money she bankrolls weekly. When I called five other childcare facilities, in an attempt to discover if this was regular business practice, I was easily able to contact the owner and speak to him or her directly."

Pechtel refused to speak with me, but faxed the following statement, quoted here in its entirety: "We as a preschool implement and strive to achieve a high quality standard for families in our community. Throughout the past 18 years of serving children and their families, our continuing success is clear and speaks for itself."

On June 13, Williams withdrew her children from Bright Beginnings.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.