Palo Alto's largest child care agency, Palo Alto Community Child Care, has received two violation citations after a state agency found the director of one of its centers had endangered the safety of children, according to investigation reports by the California Department of Social Services.
The department's Community Care Licensing Division issued the citations on March 9 for actions at El Carmelo Kids' Club, a facility operated by PACCC. An investigator substantiated two complaints that El Carmelo's then-director, David Higareda, had violated children's safety by allegedly putting at least one child in a head lock and dropping another on his head in the playground during "rough play," according to reports.
PACCC, which runs 20 infant and child care facilities, self-reported the incidents to the licensing board after a parent complained of the rough treatment of two of her children, which occurred on Dec. 16, 2015, and Feb. 18, 2016.
An investigator visited El Carmelo Kids' Club, located at 3024 Bryant St. on the El Carmelo Elementary School campus, on March 1 and then cited it for a "Type B -- Personal rights," violation for the December incident in which the child was dropped onto his head, and a more serious "Type A -- Personal rights" violation for the February head lock.
"Type A" is the most serious violation, "in which there is an immediate risk to the health, safety or personal rights of those in care." Examples include lack of care or supervision, access to open bodies of water, lack of a fire clearance for the building and access to dangerous chemicals. Citations for these violations are always issued even if the violation is corrected on the spot, the department noted on its website.
A "Type B" violation is one that, if not corrected, "may become an immediate risk to the health, safety or personal rights of clients." Examples include faulty medical record keeping and lack of adequate staff training, according to the department.
PACCC "removed and trained" Higareda after the second incident before the state investigation began, the state report noted.
But Angela Dillingham, the mother of the two children, claims that PACCC has soft-pedaled the incidents. A letter the nonprofit sent to parents characterized the head-locking incident as a misinterpretation by the child rather than a violation of the child's personal rights and safety.
The March 11 letter to parents, from Kristiane Turner, PACCC school-age program coordinator, states that during an altercation between children on the playground, Higareda "went to one of the children, putting his arm around the child so that he could quietly talk in the child's ear without being overheard by the others. The child was uncomfortable with this, indicating that he was put into a 'head lock.'"
The state investigator's report, however, found that Higareda had in fact head-locked "children."
"After interviewing children, analyst learned that one staff person played rough and head locked the children. Analyst also learned that the staff person played games with children that was (sic) not safe for children," the investigator's report noted.
A Department of Social Services spokesman could not specify the number of children the analyst referenced in the report.
Dillingham pulled her children out of El Carmelo Kids' Club after reading Turner's description of the events. She said she had patronized the after-school program for 11 years, and all three of her children had been enrolled at El Carmelo Kids' Club.
She criticized PACCC leadership with failing to fully investigate the situation by relying on interviews with teachers who worked under Higareda in coming to their conclusions.
"The licensing board is not going to give a center a Type A violation for a director whispering in a child's ear with his arm around them," she said.
Dillingham said she had no problems with the after-school care her children received until the encounters with Higareda.
She also disputed Turner's characterization of the December incident as a game of tag in which Higareda was picking up and twirling the children around. Turner wrote that he had lost his footing and fell to the ground with the 10-year-old boy, who hit his head on the "soft playground surface."
The licensing board report based on PACCC's self-reporting stated that there were no injuries. But PACCC was cited for a "Type B" violation because staff had picked up children and twirled them around, "which is not a safe practice," a later facility evaluation report found.
Then there is the question of whether Higareda should have had a medical professional examine the boy. Medical professionals say that a blow to the head won't necessarily cause trauma to the brain.
Bernard Dannenberg, M.D., director of the pediatric emergency department at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford and Stanford Health Care, said that it depends on the blow.
"Regardless, caretakers or bystanders should always consider the circumstances and symptoms. If a child hits their head, here are some potential trouble signs: loss of consciousness, vomiting, seizures, serious lacerations, scalp swelling, or unusual behavior. If these symptoms are present, then seeing a doctor right away is recommended."
But Dillingham would not have known to watch her son for signs of brain trauma if the boy hadn't told her about the fall. Higareda did not notify her, she said.
Janice Shaul, PACCC executive director, said in an emailed statement: "While our staff diligently works to prevent accidents and injuries from occurring, we also notify a parent of any accident or injury that occurs. We comply with our legal obligation to report all incidents for which a report is required including injuries that require medical attention. This allows for an investigation by a third party and allows a discussion of ways to improve."
Higareda, who worked at El Carmelo Kids' Club (ECKC) for eight years and was its director since the latter part of 2014, could not be reached for comment. But in a letter to parents, he apologized for his actions.
"As your confidence (in me) grew, so did my comfort level with the children. And I made a mistake. In being so comfortable, I made the mistake of taking my silliness and horse play and I made a child feel uncomfortable and unsafe at ECKC. I take full responsibility for this and I apologize sincerely. This was not intentional, but because of this incident I felt that I could no longer act as the face of ECKC. So, it is with the best interest of you and the children that I leave ECKC immediately."
Shaul said that confidentiality prevents PACCC from commenting on a specific child, family or employee. She said that PACCC encourages parents to discuss any concerns with administrators so that the organization "can investigate, consider the facts from differing viewpoints, and take the action PACCC determines to be appropriate, with a focus on the safety of all children."
Shaul said that PACCC offers support, coaching and reminders to staff members.
"An individual parent may not always agree with PACCC's determination as to appropriate action, but PACCC's focus is -- and always will be -- the best interests of the children in our care."
El Carmelo Kids Club was cited by the licensing board for additional violations between 2011 and 2016. In 2014, a teacher allowed a 6-year-old child to self-administer Benadryl; a child with a nut allergy was exposed to ingredients manufactured in a nut-processing facility; a 6-year-old child left the facility and crossed the street; and a child who had supposedly been signed out was later found asleep in a classroom loft by the janitor after the school had closed.
But El Carmelo is not the only child care facility to have received citations. Many others have minor citations ranging from dirty carpets or a hole in a sofa to more serious issues of untrained or unmindful staff and incidents. Information about citations for individual child care facilities can be found in the state database at ccld.ca.gov/PG3581.htm.