Non-fired worker: More flaws at Bright Beginnings

Bright Beginnings, a group of four daycare centers in the Charlottesville area, has again run afoul of state licensing laws. In the latest incident, an employee remained on staff for 11 months after being convicted of assault and battery, one of the so-called "barrier crimes" that, under state law, should have led to her immediate termination.

Bright Beginnings has garnered its share of scrutiny from state regulators, most notably for a 1999 incident in which a child wandered away from the firm's Earlysville center and walked– alone– perilously close to traffic on Earlysville Road.

In the latest incident, Michelle Morris, who was then a teacher at the Forest Lakes location, was charged in July 2002 with assault and battery of her ex-husband's wife. On August 21, 2002, she was found guilty in Greene County General District Court and, besides being forbidden from contact with her victim, was sentenced to 30 days in jail, all of which was suspended contingent on two years' good behavior.

In October 2002, a complaint regarding Morris' continued employment was filed with the Department of Social Services (DSS). On October 9, DSS licensing inspector Tanya Peduto made an unannounced visit to the Forest Lakes center. In her report, she stated, "The result of this complaint investigation is that the complaint against the staff member is founded. It is the program's and staff member's understanding that when the criminal record check is received with verification of conviction, the staff member must be terminated."

Inexplicably, the criminal-record came back clear, and DSS did not press for Morris' termination. Bright Beginnings transferred Morris from her classroom at Forest Lakes to the position of Admissions Director at the Crozet facility– which, if the center was aware that Morris was guilty of a barrier crime, was a violation of the Virginia Administrative Code.

The relevant section states, "Any person required by this chapter to obtain a criminal record report shall be ineligible for employment, volunteer service, or any facility-related activity, if the report contains convictions of the barrier crime."

In other words, a staff member found guilty of a barrier crime is barred from further employment, whether or not the job involves direct contact with children. Because the record check came back clear, however, it is impossible to determine whether Bright Beginnings knew of Morris' conviction.

After a June 26, 2003, Fearless Consumer column on Bright Beginnings ["Bright Beginnings: Violations galore vex center"], The Hook was contacted anonymously by the person who had filed the October 2002 complaint to DSS about Morris. The Hook asked DSS to again investigate the complaint. This time, Morris' conviction (which was easily accessed in Greene County District Court) was confirmed, and on July 24, Morris resigned from Bright Beginnings. She could not be reached for comment.

Bright Beginnings has been cited on numerous occasions for violations of state daycare guidelines– particularly over low staff-to-children ratios. Forest Lakes, where Morris was teaching at the time of her conviction, was put on probation in July 2001 and fined $500 for inadequate staffing; it was again put on probation for the same offense in September 2002.

During Peduto's October 2002 visit to investigate the complaint about Morris, the inspector cited the center for not posting notice that it was on probation. According to code, the state letter detailing the violations and public notice of the probation must be posted "in a prominent place at each public entrance."

A June 2003 Freedom of Information Act request to DSS resulted in more than 120 pages of documents concerning violations at the four centers between 2000 and 2003.

Owner-administrator Kathe Petchel refused to answer questions for this article.

When asked for comment on issues that would be raised in the June 25 Fearless Consumer column, Petchel 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."

Bright Beginnings