Daycare Staff Administers Alum as Disciplinary Measure

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State investigating [Name] YMCA daycare center

NORTHEAST: 01/17/2009 – The state Department of Public Welfare is investigating a day care center in [name] County after receiving complaints that staffers gave children pickling salt containing a potentially toxic compound to discipline them.

Five employees of the YMCA Child Development Center in [town], including its director and child care providers, were suspended without pay yesterday for “not following proper discipline procedures,” said [name], executive director of the [name] YMCA.

[Name], the welfare department's spokeswoman, said the complaint from a parent indicated that five children were being given alum “as a disciplinary measure.”

[Y director] confirmed that the substance in question was alum pickling salt and was given as “punishment for misbehaving.”

Alum can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and burning, and it is corrosive upon ingestion, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One parent, who requested anonymity, said he learned from another parent Wednesday that his 3-year-old son was one of the children given alum.

“I asked my son, 'When you get in trouble, what happens?' And he said, 'They put powder in my mouth.' And he named the director,” the parent said.

The parent said the incidents came to light when two day care teachers witnessed alum being given to children and called a child-abuse hot line. One of those teachers then contacted at least one of the parents whose child had been disciplined.

When he learned of the alum, he said, he contacted the county Children and Youth Services.

His son, he said, seems to be fine now. But looking back, he said, there might have been warning signs.

“He complained about his stomach being upset,” the father said, “but he played normally, so we figured it was like a 'cry wolf' thing.”

Alum, or ammonium aluminum sulfate, is an odorless, white crystal or powder found in several household products including some baking powder and styptic pencils. It is an astringent and is also used in pickling, paper-making, tanning, waterproofing and fireproofing.

The danger posed by any alum ingested by children would depend on the amount swallowed and its concentration, Dr. [name], director of the [city] Poison Center, said.

“A little exposure is no big deal,” Dr. [name] said. “My guess is a pinch would be inconsequential unless it's a high concentration.”

But a large enough dose at the right concentration could prove fatal.

“If someone got a teaspoonful of alum, that would not be a good thing. You could have vomiting, you could have diarrhea, you could have some pretty serious irritation to the inside of the mouth,” Dr. [name] said.

Details of the investigation were not released.

[Welfare department spokesperson] said she did not know over what period of time the abuse was alleged to have taken place, how much alum was said to have been given to the children, or how old the children were.

“We'll be going out to the facility doing interviews with the staff as well as doing different on-site investigations, seeing what we can find and if the complaint can be verified,” [welfare department spokesperson] said. “I can assure you with a complaint as serious as this we will be leaving no stone unturned.”

The child development center is licensed for up to 100 children.

“The staffers involved in this situation had been thoroughly investigated and had, to the best of our knowledge, served the YMCA and the [name] community responsibly,” [Y executive] said in a statement,

[Y executive] said the child care center continues to operate. “We are open and we are taking care of children the best that we are able to do,” he said.


Parents hire attorney to investigate alleged child abuse at daycare center

NORTHEAST: 01/25/2009 – A former YMCA Child Development Center worker and several parents of students that attended the center have retained a [city] law firm in connection with alleged abuse of the children.

[Law firm] attorney [name] confirmed that he had been hired by parents with children enrolled at the school, including [parental couple one], [parental couple two] and [parent three], along with former center employee [name], who notified the parents of the alleged dispensing of a pickling salt by other center workers.

According to [attorney], a minimum of four children, ranging in age from 3 to 6 were allegedly given alum by workers at the center since August.

Alum is a salt that is used in food processing and is an ingredient in commercially produced baking powder and can cause gastrointestinal bleeding, nausea, vomiting and burning when ingested, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although it appears the alleged abuse has been going on for several months, [attorney] said that the parents only learned of the use of alum as a punishment last week.

“You are dealing with toddlers and they are not going to understand, be afraid or unable to communicate it to the parents,” he said. “That's what makes this so sinister.”

Since parents have learned of the incidents, they have begun to “put two and two together,” he added.

“Some of the kids were having gastrointestinal problems or vomiting or sick,” said [attorney]. “Parents thought it was a flu bug going around and never imagined that their kids were being poisoned.”

Since meeting with the former worker, parents and children, [attorney] said that the stories are “harrowing.”

“Kids were being held down,” he said. “One little boy came home every day and said, 'poor [child’s name], poor [child’s name],' indicating that [child’s name] was being punished.”

“One child that was having trouble communicating was subjected to this treatment.”

[Attorney] said [former center employee] worked at the center since 2000 and was unaware of any wrongdoing until being told by another employee that the children were being given the substance.

“My understanding is that it was given by two individuals in an area where there was no camera or where it could be seen by others,” he said. “It was hidden, just like any abuse.”

[Former center employee] was fired after center officials learned that she had notified authorities and parents, said [attorney].

It was unclear how long the children had been enrolled at the center. “It appears these things started to happen when the kids entered the toddler or preschool program,” he said. “It seems they were given (the alum) as a punishment for back-talking or other things a toddler might do.”

State Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman [name] said that the regulatory authority continues to investigate the alleged incidents.

“We are closely monitoring the facility as they do continue to operate,” she said. “But our investigation is ongoing.”

Through the investigation, [STPW spokeswoman] said that it has been confirmed that alum was used as a means of discipline, but questions remain as to why the substance was in the facility and how many times was it given to the children.

The monitoring includes onsite visits and communication with the facility and the [name] YMCA administrations.

“We always reserve the right to do unannounced onsite inspections of licensed facilities and (the development center) falls into that category,” said [STPW spokeswoman], adding that it has been in operation since December 1998. The center has been cited in the past for other reasons, she said. “But not for anything as serious as this,” said [STPW spokeswoman].

Five employees, including the center director, have been removed from the facility, according to [STPW spokeswoman].

The state agency has authority to take action against the facility, but not the individuals. “We could take licensing action up to and through revoking their ability to operate,” said [STPW spokeswoman]. “Worst-case scenario, they could lose their license to operate.”

[STPW spokeswoman] speculated that it would take “several weeks” to conclude the department's investigation into the matter.

[Name] YMCA executive director [name] said the organization was shocked to learn of the alleged incidents. “Staff and volunteers of the [name] YMCA were shocked by recent allegations that members of our staff might have acted with poor judgment by giving five children enrolled in our child care program alum pickling salt as punishment for misbehaving,” he said in a press release. “We are cooperating fully with authorities to investigate this situation.”

[Y exec] stated that the YMCA policy requires that those staff members tied to the incident have been suspended pending a full review of the charges. He did not identify the staff members, but said that prior to their hiring all had been “thoroughly investigated.”

“The safety and welfare of children in our care always has been and always will be a top priority,” said [Y exec]. “The YMCA has been an important part of the [town] community for more than 20 years and we look forward to continuing to serve the needs of our community well into the future.

"At the same time, we recognize that the facts in this case are not fully known and we await the results of an official investigation.”

When contacted, [Y exec] declined to further discuss the matter.

[Attorney], meanwhile, said he has yet to file any action on behalf of his clients, but anticipates legal action will be taken in the near future.

“I am in the process of investigating. There is also an investigation being conducted by the state, and I'd like to see how that develops,” he said. “My main mission right now is to see the kids get any help they need.”


What published sources tell us:

  • five children allegedly were being given alum “as a disciplinary measure” at a YMCA Child Development Center
  • the practice reportedly has been going on for several months
  • five staff members and the director were suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation
  • alum can cause nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain and burning; it is corrosive upon ingestion according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • children in the center suffered from stomach aches, presumably from ingesting the alum
  • the daycare worker who notified the parents and a child-abuse hotline after witnessing the alum being given to the children was subsequently fired

What published sources don’t tell us:

  • the source of the alum – it is not a chemical normally associated with childcare
  • the reports say it was administered where cameras and others could not observe the action – how many other unobservable areas are there and why are they allowed to remain
  • whether the director was aware of the practice; if he was not, why, if it had been occurring for months
  • why the reporting employee contacted an outside agency instead of her own management
  • whether the dismissed employee’s termination was related to the reporting of the incident (as implied) or was for other documented (or undocumented) reasons
  • about YMCA disciplinary protocols
    • if progressive discipline is defined, trained, and practiced
    • what employee responsibilities are when policy violations are observed
    • whether those protocols were contrary to the actions of the employee who notified people outside of the YMCA
  • about YMCA whistle blower / anti-retaliation protocols
    • if a policy has been adopted and training provided
    • if the adopted policy has a mechanism or requirements for initial internal reporting

What we must consider:

  • We all would like to think that the acts were not knowingly harmful (e.g., someone decided to use grandma’s solution to a behavior problem because it worked), but the fact that the punishment was done where observation was impossible strongly suggests knowledge that the behavior was unacceptable.
  • Establishment of safe disciplinary techniques should be taught to all staff along with protocols to correct unwanted behavior by children.
    • These techniques should include a progressive discipline policy which should be regularly trained and reviewed. A communicated and followed progressive discipline policy will mitigate the use of unwanted discipline techniques.
    • Staff cannot be allowed to freelance – their interaction with children must follow the defined protocols.
    • If children cannot be adequately supervised using defined protocols then that shortcoming must be immediately reported so that the protocols can be amended – adlibbing of disciplinary methods is absolutely unacceptable. (It is presumed that the administering of alum was not part of their written protocols.)
  • All discipline and behavior issues should be discussed with the parents – there should be documentation of both the discipline and the parental conference. There should be no disciplinary action taken that is not discussed with the parent, preferably when they next retrieve their child. The possibility, type, and triggers of any disciplinary action should have been disclosed in the parental handbook or program materials before children become part of the program.
  • A regular supervisory presence is the best deterrent to unwanted staff behaviors. Supervision of staff must include (preferably unobtrusive) observation of staff interaction with children.
    • When oversight is not present on a regular on-going basis staff may make decisions without appropriate consideration of the consequences to the children, the parents, the association, or themselves.
    • If camera surveillance is utilized there should be no areas in the facility where camera observation is ineffectual. Cameras provide a sense of security – blank spots make that a false sense of security.
  • YMCAs should have an established whistle blower policy and reporting mechanism.
    • The staff member at this YMCA who contacted outside authorities and parents apparently acted with the best interest of the children in mind.
    • Staff should be trained and encouraged to report suspect behavior either anonymously or to a supervisor; however, they will actually do so only if there is no fear of repercussion.
    • The only way to stop unwanted behavior and to have your staff actually address unwanted behavior on the part of others is to have them know their actions will be supported.

Conclusion

Staff had difficulty maintaining the level of discipline they sought and resorted to unauthorized methodology. Neither staff nor children should be placed in that position. Regular staff meetings should examine the previous week’s events and should solicit information regarding anything that is not functioning smoothly whether it is a specific child or protocol or a general policy. Behavioral challenges must be reviewed so that all staff members are aware of any issues; the challenges should have already been documented and discussed with the parents. Encouraging creative and innovative thought is good, but unapproved behavior must be immediately curtailed. Any change in procedure or policy should be explicitly approved by management. Building strong kids, strong families, and strong communities requires safe, consistent treatment of all – not improvised or impromptu actions.

Please call us at 800-463-8546 to discuss this or any other risk management safety tip, or visit our web site at www.redwoodsgroup.com to learn more about YMCA risk management issues.

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