ATLANTA -- There have been nearly 500 major incidents at Georgia child care programs over the past five years, including at least eight deaths and 239 injuries, but few of these violations have spurred state officials to close the day care centers, according to an analysis conducted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The newspaper reported Sunday that the analysis revealed that the Department of Early Care and Learning, which oversees child care programs, revokes licenses of child care providers at a lower rate than most neighboring states. It also found that the state relies heavily on fines but rarely uses other available sanctions.
Child care advocacy groups say the findings are disturbing. Linda Smith, the executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, said the analysis signals that Georgia has a "broken system that really needs to be scrubbed."
Department commissioner Bobby Cagle questioned whether Georgia's statistics could be accurately compared to neighboring states because each system operates differently. But Cagle told the newspaper the agency is overdue for a review, which he said is scheduled to begin in November.
"I am concerned that we have not taken a close look at our system in many years," he said. "I think it was 1987 since the last time the system had an outside expert come in and take a look at it."
The state has issued 497 severe penalties, known as "adverse actions," in the past five years, the analysis found. The penalties occurred at 436 child care programs, a fraction of the state's 6,686 licensed providers.
The records show that one day care released the wrong child to the blind grandfather of another child. Another child care provider's boyfriend kidnapped two children in her care. They also show that children have wandered off from Georgia day care centers at least 50 times in the past five years.
One case involved Sara Poole's 7-year-old son, who scaled a fence at his Kennesaw day care and walked more than two miles to try to find his home. Poole pulled her children from the day care center, and the state fined its owners $299, the lesser of two fines it generally issues.
The analysis showed the state handed down fines in almost 90 percent of the incidents and rarely restricted the licenses for providers, such as banning them from taking children on field trips after a transportation violation.
Georgia has revoked 44 licenses in the past five years, but the analysis found that North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana and South Carolina revoked licenses more often than Georgia between 2007 and 2010.
The analysis shows that some of the children hurt themselves while being improperly supervised, some were hurt by other children, and a few were injured or abused by day care staffers. At least 62 of the incidents left children with broken bones, and four children suffered fractured skulls. One took place when an 8-month-old fell off a diaper changing table.
There were also at least 25 instances of someone slamming a door on children's fingers, and several of the accidents required their fingers to be amputated.
At least two of the eight deaths were caused by sudden infant death syndrome, and another two infants were found unresponsive or turning blue in their cribs, according to the analysis. Another child died when a Columbus day care provider couldn't evacuate her home when a fire broke out.