Wee Care child centers get new owner, overhaul

April 18, 1994|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Sherry Joe contributed to this article

The firm that took over two troubled day care centers is making substantial improvements since the previous owner decided to sell out rather than continue fighting state regulators who were seeking to shut down one and considering action against the other.

The new owners of Wee Care Children's Centers, the national chain of Children's Discovery Centers, are spending $40,000 to $50,000 to bring both centers up to code. They are replacing equipment, painting, laying down new carpet and making other changes.

Kenneth Looney, former owner of the Wee Care Children's Centers -- located in Severna Park and Columbia -- sold them to the national day care chain in December.

"We were not in the process of closing Columbia, but only because he had made an agreement to sell both centers," said Walinda West, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees the state's Child Care Administration.

State regulators told Mr. Looney, who could not be reached for comment, that they were closing the Severna Park center last summer for dozens of violations over a two-year period. The center remained open while Mr. Looney appealed the decision, which blocked the license revocation until an administrative hearing could be held. However, he changed his mind before the hearing and sold both centers.

State regulators said they are relieved.

"We're satisfied with the way it turned out," said Jacqueline Bennett, a regional manager for the state's Child Care Administration in Anne Arundel County. "Since [the new company] took over in December, there have been no complaints. They are trying very hard to bring everything into compliance."

Mindy Stepek, whose 4-year-old son has attended the Severna Park center for two years, said she is pleased with the new management.

"I've noticed drastic changes, all for the better," she said. "They've upgraded the building and the staff. I've noticed that staff turnover is lower."

Holly Amsterdam, regional director for the new owners, said Children's Discovery Centers rarely takes on centers with as many problems as Wee Care.

"Generally, we buy centers with outstanding reputations," she said, adding that the 150-center chain only buys existing centers. "We have rarely gone in and had to completely overhaul a place like we did with this one."

Mr. Looney approached her company, which had advertised to buy centers in Maryland to "break into the market," she said. The company began negotiations without knowing the centers' licenses were in jeopardy. However, the deal was later renegotiated "for a lower price" after company representatives visited the sites and learned about the violations, Ms. Amsterdam said.

Enrollment at the Severna Park center off Ritchie Highway is up 25 percent, now that word of the sale has spread. Enrollment at the Columbia center on Columbia Gateway Drive is up 10 percent, said Ms. Amsterdam.

"We've had a tremendous rush of re-enrollments, particularly in our drop-in program," said Christine Nizer, the new Severna Park director.

The drop-in program, a unique feature of Wee Care, allowed families to leave their children on an occasional basis. Although the service was popular with parents, state regulators had trouble with it because the number of drop-ins frequently increased the staff-to-child ratio.

"Some of the more serious violations were improper staff-to-child ratios and the use of unqualified staff," said Ms. West, referring to the Columbia center. Similar violations also were found in Severna Park.

Other violations included accepting children under the age of 2 at the Severna Park Center, which was licensed only for children 2 and older; leaving hazardous substances, such as cleaning fluids, within the reach of children; and inadequately supervising children. In one incident a 4-year-old boy was left unattended in an outdoor playground.

From August to December 1993, 14 complaints were filed against the center at 7195 Columbia Gateway Drive. Child Care Administration officials also inspected the facility at least seven times during that period.

Frances Sterner, regional manager for the administration, said no complaints have been filed against the Columbia center since the new owners took over in December.

Wee Care's new owners plan to change its name when all renovations and improvements are completed. They also may eliminate the drop-in program and scale back the extended hours, which are now 6 a.m. to midnight, said Ms. Amsterdam.

The company is negotiating deals with 15 to 20 other day care centers in Howard, Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Ms. Amsterdam said she could not release details, however, until the sales were completed.

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