Meet one family that could have benefited from seeing hidden day care violations much earlier.

When Mazen and Holly Baayoun needed day care for their 2-year-old daughter, they wrote three pages of questions for staff at the facilities they visited. They wanted to know not only about the curriculum and recent accidents, but also how far the fire department is from the facility. In the end, they chose Sierra School in Santa Clarita, California, for its strong academic focus.

Less than two months later, the Baayouns’ daughter had a black eye when they picked her up at school. A teacher had hit her, she said. The local sheriff investigated, but no charges were filed. The Baayouns pulled their daughter from the school.

What the Baayouns didn’t know when they enrolled their child at Sierra, despite their questions and research, was that the facility already was on probation after racking up dozens of serious violations issued by state inspectors. Problems included leaving children unsupervised and using illegal electrical wiring that children could touch.

“So, essentially, I enrolled my daughter in a death trap,” said a tearful Mazen Baayoun when shown a pile of records by The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Sierra is one of 10 day care centers in California with more than two dozen serious violations in the past five years. All of them still are licensed and operating, despite their checkered histories. A few facilities, including Sierra, have had such intractable problems that state regulators have tried to shut them down.

But the state doesn’t tell parents about the problems. California relies on day care center administrators – even those who operate facilities with troubling records – to inform parents of serious violations or when the center has been put on probation.

Besides the Baayouns, other parents were unaware of Sierra’s problems as well. When reporters from CIR spoke with five different parents outside the center, none of them said they knew the school was on probation.

Lalanie Herath, director of Sierra School, said she has disclosed the issues to parents as she is required by the state to do. State law requires child care centers to have parents sign forms acknowledging that they were informed that the school is on probation or has recent serious violations. As proof, a regulatory compliance consultant for Sierra faxed 40 forms, signed by parents, to CIR.

One of the forms had a signature for Mazen Baayoun dated in July 2014, nearly two months after he removed his daughter from the center. He disputes its authenticity. In a Nov. 2 email to the California Department of Social Services, he wrote: “In July of 2014 our daughter had already started going to a new facility and we had cut all ties with Sierra School.” He added that the signature at the bottom of the form does not match his handwriting.

“We believe the form was fabricated and false,” he wrote.

When a reporter attempted to contact Herath about the form, she hung up. Her consultant referred us to her lawyer, who did not return multiple calls for comment or respond to a letter sent by certified mail.

In October, the Department of Social Services took legal action to revoke Sierra School’s probation and strip its license to operate. Among the state’s reasons for doing so: School officials “failed to notify parents of the probationary status” of the license, according to state records.

Yet the school remains open, even though state regulators believe it has violated the terms of its probation, because the school has the right to appeal.

“The fundamental tenet in the American legal system is that there’s due process and that government usually doesn’t have the right to just do something quickly unless there’s an immediate life and safety concern,” said Pat Leary, chief deputy director of the Department of Social Services, speaking about centers with troubled records.

Sierra School can appeal to keep its license through an administrative process, but it can take many months for a hearing to take place.

“It’s one of those things where there are just more cases than there are judges to hear them. So it can take a very long time,” Leary said.

It’s difficult for parents to get inspection records even if they’re looking for them. After CIR and NBC Bay Area reported last January about the state’s lack of online information about child care centers, it posted limited data on its website. Lawmakers even passed legislation requiring the department to continue to do so. But advocates say the site falls short because it doesn’t report what problems were found in inspections.

Before the state posted data and to provide more detailed information to parents, CIR reporters began scanning day care inspection documents. To date, thousands of pages of records for four San Francisco Bay Area counties have been scanned and made available online. But in California’s 54 other counties, documents remain stored away and are not easily accessible.

The state introduced a new system early this year so that parents can receive email notifications when there’s new information about a center on the state’s website. But it will be years before the site lists the specific violations received, Leary said.

The California Department of Social Services posted limited information about day care facilities in June. Credit: Vladimir Nenezic/Shutterstock

In the meantime, parents have to contact local offices to find out about violations or rely on their child care providers to notify them when there are problems. “It’s against the law not to comply with the requirement to notify parents. Most facilities do in fact notify parents,” Leary said.

To get an idea of the scope of the problem, CIR downloaded the data the Department of Social Services posted on its website and determined the facilities with the most serious violations. Reporters also requested the documents for those facilities to get the details of their violations.

Sierra – which has 35 Type-A violations, according to state records – was among the 10 day care centers in the state with the most serious violations, according to a CIR analysis. The analysis was based on data for a five-year period downloaded from the Department of Social Services’ website in September. (Sierra School provided CIR with additional records.) Based on information in state public records compiled by CIR, here are the nine other facilities on that list, with summaries of their documented violations:

Little Mountain Preschool, San Bernardino County: 39 serious violations

Teachers texted and talked on their cellphones while supposedly supervising children at this preschool. Spiders, including black widows, infested the play yard, and roaches plagued the preschool. Rusty nails, uncovered electrical outlets and loose wiring made the facility unsafe.

Despite having received more of the most serious violations – known as Type A – than any other preschool in the state, the owner currently is seeking a license for another school, according to the state’s website.

Owner Rohith Senewiratne said he is correcting the problems.

Bundle of Joy Daycare #3, Los Angeles County: 34 serious violations

After the owner left a child in a van for an hour and a half at this day care center, the state sought to shut down the facility. Instead, Bundle of Joy, which is licensed to serve children from infants to school age, was ordered to be put on a three-year probation in October 2012.

The school previously had been cited by the state for failing to adequately supervise children. It also employed staff who hadn’t undergone criminal background checks. Even after it was put on probation, the facility continued to have problems, such as an incident in which children were left outside unsupervised and later discovered with their pants down.

Edward Stowe, who owns the preschool with his wife, Yolanda, left the child in the van. Under the terms of the probation, he no longer can transport kids to or from the school.

Probation has “been a tedious process,” Yolanda Stowe said. “My husband ended up leaving the kid in the van. We are at fault. We have to accept it, because he did do that.”

She said her center is complying with state regulations. The employee who left children unsupervised on the playground no longer works there.

Children’s Cottage, Napa County: 34 serious violations

Children’s Cottage has a long history of violations of state licensing law, including leaving children alone. The state has cited the center multiple times for having too few teachers for the number of children. On the playground, children have pulled down their pants and touched one another’s genitals, legal documents show.

This school was put on probation in June 2011. The state sought to shut down the preschool and its sister infant center in December 2013 but stopped the process in November 2014 after the school made improvements.

Ray Welch, owner of Children’s Cottage, said the school now has a new director and numerous new teachers. “In the last 12 months, we’ve done an incredible job of turning the school around and keeping it in compliance with all the regulations,” he said.

He added: “We’re definitely doing our job to be a safe and secure place.”

Gospel Pre-After School, Orange County: 34 serious violations

This facility, where the director acknowledged forging parents’ signatures on forms, has been cited by state inspectors on multiple occasions for not supervising children while they used the bathroom – a violation of the California Health and Safety Code. It also failed to ensure that all staff members have criminal record clearances to work in the facility.

CIR contacted the facility, but the director, Jean Sung, declined to comment.

Crenshaw Tot Academy, Los Angeles County: 30 serious violations

During the past five years, this facility has been cited multiple times for having too many children for the number of teachers.

In March 2013, inspectors noted chipped paint, crumbling plaster and mildewed bathroom tile. They found an unidentified “sticky substance throughout the floor,” as well as food stains and fingerprints on the walls. In the restrooms, they reported “dirt stains and urine stains on the seats and the sink has dirt and rust stains.”

Inspectors have noted some improvements. In an October 2013 evaluation, they wrote that floors at the facility were “in better condition” and that the facility was cleaning the restrooms daily. In that same evaluation, however, inspectors cited the center for not conducting a criminal record clearance for an employee and for leaving aides alone with children. By law, assistants are supposed to be supervised by a teacher.

Representatives from Crenshaw Tot Academy could not be reached for comment.

Children’s Country House, Los Angeles County: 29 serious violations

The website for this center boasts about its bucolic setting featuring “trees, grass, (and yes, even dirt),” along with a live menagerie that includes a pony, goats, rabbits and chickens. But state inspectors criticized the living conditions of the farm animals.

“Pens for goats and pony are filled with feces and it is attracting flies. Water for geese is very dirty and malodorous,” one inspector wrote. Children had access to the goose wading pool even after the birds had been put back in their pen.

“When it’s 100 degrees for a month, there’s going to be flies. Licensing doesn’t want any flies,” said Debera Nielsen, who has owned and run the preschool for 40 years with animals there the whole time.

Nielsen says that in recent years, licensing has become more judgmental and less friendly and helpful. She has found the process for appealing violations frustrating and opaque.

“A fly is different from somebody breaking their neck,” she said.

Garden Grove 1st Preschool, Orange County: 29 serious violations  

State inspectors have cited this facility on multiple occasions for having too many children for the number of staff. It also has been cited for having expired food in the kitchen.

In one evaluation, inspectors wrote: “Knives and adult scissors were left on the kitchen counter accessible to children.” They went on to write that “cooking stoves were turned on and no adult was in the kitchen.”

The facility hired a new director last summer, who said she’s putting more rules and guidelines in place.

Safety and supervision are important, said Director Jennifer Flemings. “I’m training the staff about what we need to do to be a better place.”

Rancho Heritage School, San Bernardino County: 27 serious violations

In December 2013, an administrative judge ordered the facility to be placed on probation for three years because of multiple infractions.

In 2012, a 3-year-old was left alone on the playground. A good Samaritan brought the child to the facility office.

“He was scared, crying, and alone on a playground,” the judge wrote in his decision. “This should never happen to a child, and yet it occurred after a compliance conference about the importance of the facility maintaining constant visual supervision of the children in its care.”

The facility also allowed staff to work without proper background checks.

The Department of Social Services sought to revoke the facility’s license, but the administrative judge put the facility on probation instead.

The school’s principal, Hal Hazegh, acknowledged that the child being left on the playground was a problem but said the child was never in danger. Since then, he said, the school has been rigorous about taking counts of children before they come in from the playground.

“We’ve operated for 14 years without a major incident,” Hazegh said. “We have a lot of very happy parents.”

St. Anne’s Early Learning Center, Los Angeles County: 25 serious violations

On multiple occasions, this facility failed to properly supervise children, according to inspection reports.

“A child was observed by a parent in the play yard by himself,” inspectors wrote in a 2011 report. “Staff did not know until parent alerted them.”

Previous reports describe incidents in which children “wandered away with no visual observation.”

Over the past few years, the Department of Social Services has directed the facility to improve staff training and bolster its systems for keeping track of children.

A reporter left multiple messages for the center’s director, but calls were not returned.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. She's also been a senior writer for Salon and Fast Company. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Slate and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

Her coverage has won national awards, including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award two years in a row, an Online News Association Award, a Webby Award and a Society of Environmental Journalists Award. Mieszkowski has a bachelor's degree from Yale University. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Jennifer LaFleur

Jennifer LaFleur worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September, 2017. Jennifer LaFleur is senior editor for data journalism for Reveal. Previously, she was the director of computer-assisted reporting at ProPublica and has held similar roles at The Dallas Morning News, the San Jose Mercury News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors. She has won awards for her coverage of disability, legal and open government issues. LaFleur is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.