State Names Child-care Centers With Convicts Present

State Names Child-care Centers With Convicts Present

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- State health officials have disclosed names of child-care centers that had convicted offenders on the staff or living on site.

A legislative audit recently found that since 2002, the Bureau of Child Care Licensing had granted more than 50 licenses to people who either have criminal records themselves or employ or live with convicts -- including sex offenders, child abusers and drug users.

State law prohibits anyone who has been convicted of a felony, sexual crime or violence against a family member to operate or be associated with a day care. Some misdemeanor crimes can be exempted with prior approval from the health department chief.

The audit found regulators allowed improper licensing exclusions for 28 convicted felons, half of whom provide direct care to children, and cleared 23 people who had misdemeanor convictions without getting approval from the department's head.

Dr. Marc Babitz, a physician who was hired last May to improve child-care regulation, told legislators last week that the exemptions are no longer granted, and the already approved variances will come up for review this year and will not be renewed.

The names and addresses that now have been released included at least 18 child care centers still operating with offenders on staff or on site. The rest have either closed, had their permission to have employees or residents with criminal records revoked or have fired those workers.

"We have more work to do. But we're making headway. We will get down to zero," Babitz said.

"We license more than 2,700 facilities, so the odds of you having a kid in a problem facility are small," he said.

In cases where the child care centers are inside homes, owners interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune often said the offender no longer resides there. Others denied ever applying for a variance to allow a criminal employee or resident. Health officials acknowledge two centers were listed by mistake.

One of the centers improperly granted a variance is owned by the wife of former Rep. Calvin Bird, R-Springville, who resigned from the Legislature last year after getting caught soliciting sex from a police decoy. Bird said he has nothing to do with the center's operation and that his crime has been expunged.

Becky Patane, who runs a day care out of her Fruit Heights home, said a teenage relative was accused of misdemeanor sexual abuse of a child under her care. The relative "touched her on the belly," said Patane, and has since moved out. "At the time, I was required to notify all my parents and none of them chose to leave," she told the newspaper.

Ashlee Lake, licensed to care for eight children in her Heber City home, said she got a variance for her 27-year-old husband. He was 19 when he was convicted of unlawful sex with a minor for having consensual relations with a 16-year old, she said.

Lake argues a distinction should be made from sexual predators and those like her husband.

"It's been eight years now," said Lake, 29. "There is such a wide spectrum of sex offenders in the state of Utah.... We all make mistakes in life, and at some point you should be granted a second chance."

The parents of her day care kids support her, she said.

"I have been doing day care for the state of Utah now for 10 years," she said. State regulators "are trying to make me choose between my husband and my profession. At this point, my husband is moving out until we can try to see what we can do."

Suzanne Okelberry, who cares for 16 children in her Bountiful home, said she was forced to fire her star employee after the woman was convicted of misdemeanor assault for striking a friend she discovered was having sex with her husband.

"I personally think she was entitled to a little rage. Plus she took anger management classes and completed everything the courts told her to do," Okelberry said. "It's unfortunate; you make one mistake and nobody ever gives you a chance to restart your life."

Babitz sympathizes with Okelberry's plight, but said he has no choice but to enforce the rules as written.

"Everybody wants to tell me why their spouse or employee is a wonderful person. Sometimes they come armed with reference letters from church officials and neighbors," said Babitz. "But their problem is with the criminal justice system. I'm not the judge, I'm not Moses or Solomon. How can I say one person is fine and another isn't?"

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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