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"The conditions these children were subjected to were some of the most deplorable I have seen in any of our child care licensing investigations," said DCFS Secretary Ruth Johnson. "Despite knowing that a license was required prior to beginning operation of a child care facility of this size, Ms. Willis and Ms. Poole willfully violated the law and continued to take children into their home sometimes moving locations or applying under a different name to evade our efforts to stop them. In doing so, they have put the safety of numerous children at risk."
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DCFS is the state agency charged with licensing child care facilities in the state and monitoring and enforcing the provisions of the Child Care Facilities and Child Placing Agencies Licensing Act and all published rules governing child care. DCFS also registers Family Child Day Care Homes for which licenses are not required as long as care is being provided for no more than six unrelated children. Anytime care is provided for more than six unrelated children, DCFS requires that the facility apply for a license.
In the most recent series of events, DCFS licensing specialists, acting on a complaint from the New Orleans City Fire Marshal, visited a small residence located at 2908 General Meyer Avenue in New Orleans and found 40 unrelated children in Willis' care. Toddler-aged children were observed sleeping head to toe on the bare floor and other infants were buckled in their car seat carriers and placed two to a crib. Some infants slept, sometimes two to a bed, surrounded by loose bedding, blankets, pillows and oversized stuffed animals, all of which pose a danger of suffocation for sleeping children.
DCFS licensing specialists informed Willis of the seriousness of her violation and remained at the residence until all parents were contacted and children were taken home. Upon arrival, parents were informed Willis was violating licensing and safety requirements and that the child care was closed. The specialists recorded the names and contact information of the parents and told them of the consequences of allowing their children back into such an unsafe environment.
A cease-and-desist order was promptly issued to Willis, ordering the facility closed; however, Willis and Poole continued to operate the child care facility illegally. A follow-up visit, however, revealed only six children in the home.
On November 30, a third visit was made following a new complaint. When specialists arrived, they found 33 children present, with numerous children concealed in bedrooms and closets in the house. Specialists again ensured that children were returned to the custody of their parents, and DCFS proceeded with legal proceedings to secure an injunction.
"Such blatant disregard for the law and the safety of the children in their care is unacceptable. These attempts to evade our efforts to keep children safe must stop." said Johnson. "We are asking the court to issue an order to finally and permanently prohibit this facility from continuing to operate illegally. We also are seeking mandatory fines of up to $250 per day for each day that this facility has operated without a license."
Johnson said that Willis initially was cited for operating an unlicensed child care center at the same address in 2003, but when DCFS attempted to take action to require her to obtain a license, she moved to a new location. In May of that year, DCFS discovered the new location at 3119 General Meyer Avenue where Willis was caring for at least 40 children on a regular basis and a cease-and-desist order was issued. Follow-up visits to the new location found no children present.
In 2005, DCFS again learned that Willis had moved her illegal child care operation back to her original location, but Willis refused entry to DCFS licensing and continued her evasion until Hurricane Katrina disrupted DCFS complaint investigations for more than a year.
In 2006, Willis registered with DCFS as a Family Child Day Care Home and was authorized to care for no more than six children. However, DCFS continued to receive complaints, but was unable to verify the presence of more than six children, until a 2008 investigation revealed 11 children in Willis' care and a suit was filed to block the continued operation of the unlicensed facility.
Following the filing of the suit, DCFS received an application for registration of the Family Child Care Day Home from Latasha Poole, now known to be the daughter of Ms. Willis. Complaint investigations of Ms. Poole's child care operation failed to uncover proof that more than six children were cared for in the home until now.
"With the evidence of violations of child care licensing laws and child safety that we have now, we fully intend to ensure the end of operations of this facility," said Johnson. "With the help of law enforcement, fire and health officials in New Orleans, we will ensure that this facility is no longer able to put the health and safety of children at risk."
For more information about child care licensing and a listing of Louisiana's licensed child care facilities and inspection reports, visit www.dcfs.louisiana.gov/ChildCareFacilities.