MALONE - The reason a local woman was removed as director of a Saranac Lake day-care center was that she allegedly disciplined a 2-year-old girl at least three times by placing her in a high chair in the center's bathroom with the lights off and the door closed, without direct supervision from staff, in one case for up to two hours.
Rhonda Preston doesn't deny the girl was placed in the high chair in the bathroom at Doug's Place, but she refutes the state's allegations that she did so as a form of punishment. She says the girl had asked to be put there and was being watched by staff through a large window.
"We had tried everything to calm her down," Preston told the Enterprise Friday. "The child asked to go in the high chair. Staff was in full view of her in the high chair. She fell instantly to sleep. She did not cry. At any point her two teachers could have taken her out of there.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"I did what I thought was appropriate because that made the child safe, secure and happy," Preston added. "I would never do anything to hurt any child."
Preston spoke with the Enterprise late Friday morning outside the courtroom of the Franklin County Courthouse in Malone, where a hearing was held before state Supreme Court Judge John Ellis on her request to be reinstated as the center's director. Preston, through her lawyer, Brian Barrett of Lake Placid, has filed an order to show cause against the state Office of Children and Family Services, which last month ordered her "to have no child care role at the day care center" pending the outcome of an investigation into the allegations.
In court papers, Barrett wrote that the state never gave Preston an opportunity to dispute the charges through a hearing or other process before it removed her as director of Doug's Place based on "unsupported findings." As a result of the decision, Barrett said Preston has been "monetarily damaged as well as suffered damage to her good name and standing in the community." Unless the court intervenes and restores her as director, "the short term viability of (Preston's) business, as well as the viability of uninterrupted child care services at Doug's Place is in serious jeopardy," Barrett wrote.
Plattsburgh-based Assistant Attorney General Glen Michaels represented OCFS during Friday's roughly 20-minute hearing. When Ellis asked whether the removal of Preston was the agency's final determination, Michaels said there are two investigations that were taking place simultaneously.
"It appears Ms. Preston has not been complying with the determination of the Office of Children and Family Services and apparently is still being involved with children, which has led to a complaint that is being investigated," Michaels said. "But the determination by the agency as to her fitness to be program director or to be involved with children is a final determination."
Michaels said the allegations against Preston are backed up by the staff at Doug's Place who "testified to multiple instances of a child being left in a dark bathroom unattended for significant periods of time, contrary to all the regulations, also contrary to all the principles of child development." He said OFCS has statements from the girl's parents "indicating this child suffered psychological harm from this having been done to her."
In order for Preston to get her director's job back, she would have to show the state has caused her "irreparable harm" by removing her. Michaels noted that the state could have revoked the center's license.
"Instead, what they did was say to Ms. Preston, 'We have determined that you are not fit, because of these substantiated violations, to act as a program director or interact with children,'" he said. "They did not say 'You cannot own this facility.' This is not depriving the petitioner of her business."
Michaels also raised procedural questions about whether the court has jurisdiction over the matter, in part because a formal petition hasn't been filed yet. He said there's "an extraordinarily high standard" that would have to be met for the court to issue an injunction against OCFS for carrying out its mission of trying to protect children.
In his comments to the judge, Barrett argued the state's actions against Preston create "the serious risk that Doug's Place is going to close, and that 30 families are going to be without day care soon." He raised questions about the accuracy and consistency of some of the statements made by Doug's Place employees and state investigators, calling it a case of "he said, she said." Barrett asked the judge to conduct an evidentiary hearing.
Ellis had just received the state's response to Preston's order to show cause, so he said he couldn't make a decision on the spot. He asked Barrett to file a response to the state's papers in a week. Once that happens, the state will then be given a week to file its own response, after which Ellis said he'd make a determination.
Outside the courtroom, the Enterprise asked Barrett and Preston how her removal as director could possibly lead to the closure of Doug's Place. Preston said it's because of financial issues. Because of the state's investigation, the Saranac Lake Central School District canceled its contract to send 12 students to the center for pre-kindergarten. Since she can have no child-care role at the center, Preston said she's had to hire another employee and pay her remaining employees overtime to do the things she was doing.
Asked about the claim that she has continued to be involved with kids at the center despite the state's order, Preston said the state hasn't given her specific direction on what she can and can't do.
While Preston's removal as director is largely tied to the allegations involving one child, Doug's Place was cited for 32 violations of state child-care laws based on a series of state inspections between April 2012 and last month, according to information on the OCFS website. As of August, 15 violations had been corrected while the rest had not. The report doesn't describe the incident or observation that led to each violation; it only gives a brief description of the child-care regulation that was violated.
Asked about that long list of violations, Preston said she's had six different OCFS inspectors through the center over the past year.
"If six different inspectors come to your place, wouldn't they find something wrong?" she said.
Since the Enterprise first reported on the allegations at Doug's Place in August, the newspaper has received and published five letters from parents of children at the center and from other local residents, all calling it a great school and supporting Preston. Several of those letters were included in the order Preston filed with the court seeking her reinstatement.
"The support I've been getting from the community is overwhelming," Preston said. "It makes me feel good."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.