Breakdown of state oversight let day-care center stay open

BELLEFONTAINE NEIGHBORS, Mo. _ A home-based child-care center where a 4-year-old was reported missing last week was allowed to operate for years with a state license, even though a state investigation had found that kids at the center had been given drugs and alcohol.

Critics say the day care center was allowed to operate largely because two state departments failed to communicate with each other about dangers there.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday that local police had investigated Neecy's Nest Child Care Center in suburban St. Louis since 2003.

Bellefontaine Neighbors Police Chief Robert Pruett said his office actively worked with the state child protective services as early as May 2003. He said police were responding to hot line calls about the welfare of children, concerns that continued as late as last summer.

Two of those complaints led to the arrest and conviction of Andy Barnes, 51, for child endangerment for providing the drugs. Court records show Barnes has done jail time on numerous convictions, including domestic assault and kidnapping.

But that information didn't find its way to the state agency responsible for licensing child-care centers and closing those deemed dangerous. In Missouri, those duties fall the Department of Health and Senior Services. Meanwhile, hot line calls, such as the one made against Barnes, are investigated by the Department of Social Services child protective services.

Andi Schleicher, head of the Child Day Care Association, criticizes what she views as a breakdown of communication.

"There's absolutely no excuse for the Division of Social Services not to tell licensing," she said.

Celesta Hartgraves, of the Department of Social Services' children's division, declined to discuss any details related to the hot line calls. Hartgraves did say the home no longer provided temporary care for foster children.

Were a complaint made directly against a child-care center, she said, the agency would routinely notify child-care licensing.

"If it wasn't a report on her day care, it might not have come to the state's attention that she was a day-care provider," Hartgraves said.

It wasn't until Thursday that the state Department of Health and Senior Services revoked the operating license of the center's owner, Denise Herd.

That action came after police alleged that Namon Taylor, Herd's estranged husband, took a boy with the child-care center's consent in a car and did not return with him until 9 p.m. Police say Taylor, 33, who has multiple felony convictions, told them he took the boy to a crack house in St. Louis.

State licensing officials say they had received no prior complaints about the center.