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— On September 28, the Salvation Army closed the doors to its Door of Hope Children's Learning Center day care in Kearny Mesa. The center had been in operation since 1983 and had cared for children from six weeks to 12 years old. Salvation Army divisional commander Lieutenant Colonel Doug O'Brien says the center has been dogged for years by declining attendance and that the "number of children in the program simply didn't pay the bills."

But there were other problems at the center. During the latter half of 2006 through March of this year, California Community Care Licensing Division, the state agency that monitors senior and child-care organizations, had levied heavy fines on the center for violations such as children being left outside unattended, substandard staff-to-children ratios, and teachers pinching and spanking the children.

Files on the Salvation Army facility kept at the Community Care Licensing's Mission Valley office contain a March 20, 2007 letter written by licensing program manager Dana Lovelace to Salvation Army administrator Bill Molina. "In the area of personal rights violations and care and supervision requirements," Lovelace wrote, "your facility has numerous deficiencies which continue to be cited each time licensing visits the facility. These violations where children were pinched, pushed, yelled at, and left alone on the playground or in the bathroom are extremely serious. Because these same kinds of violations were found in 2003, and addressed in a non-compliance conference at that time, and because these violations have been repeated again and again, long after you were cited.... As of this date, the civil penalties assessed for your facility exceed $30,000. In my entire career, I have never fined a facility this kind of money and I have never seen such delayed and continued administrative inability to correct serious deficiencies."

Lovelace went on to say that the Salvation Army day-care center had "several other areas of concern, most notably that the center lacks very basic program curriculum materials, which we have not yet addressed due to the priority of the safety violations."

It was into that situation at the Door of Hope day care that Alisa Oliver, a 17-year veteran of the child-care industry, was hired as center director in March of this year. She had been working at Children's Hospital day care as a teacher and had also worked for KinderCare corporate day care. Asked for her impressions of the center when she arrived, Oliver says, "It was terrible. It smelled bad, it looked really bad, it was in pretty bad condition. The average child-care center you walk into, you see science items, you see music instruments for the children to play with. A lot of different toys with all the different developmental areas that children need. At that facility, there were no toys. It was very cluttered, very dirty and dark, and it was real loud in there -- a lot of teachers yelling at the children. The environment was very, very loud. It was a very chaotic environment."

Oliver says she wasn't aware that the center was under fire from Community Care Licensing until she started on the job. "They did not tell me all of that," she contends. "They did not tell me that they had numerous licensing issues, that children were being abused in the facility. The lady that hired me, she went on vacation for three days, so she left a packet of information for me to read through which was 50 pages long. It listed all the licensing issues."

Oliver continues, "Of the 16 teachers that were there, 14 of them hadn't had their background stuff done, no CPR, no physical -- because each teacher is required by licensing to have a health screen on file. The opening and closing teachers have to have CPR and first aid. So my first day and the next day, I was calling around clinics in San Diego to see if I could get these teachers into clinics so that they could get their health screening done. So that was my first few days of challenges. And as I said, it was very chaotic. When you walk into a day care, it should look very structured -- kids under supervision doing science, arts and crafts, not kids screaming, kids running down the hall, not disorder."

Within her first week on the job, Oliver says, "Licensing called me. They wanted to meet me at their main office to tell me all the licensing issues. They didn't want the Salvation Army to tell me. I went down to the state building in Mission Valley, and I met with the head of licensing, who at that time was Dana Lovelace, and I met with Patricia Norstrom, who is a licensing analyst. I walk in, and they have two large tables with all these documents on them. They said, 'What we have here is all the child abuse that has happened at this facility over the last two years. And we don't want you coming into this center unaware of what has really gone on here.' So I sit down, and they are going over incident by incident with me of staff members, starting with the center director: the center director spanking children; staff members smoking in front of the children; falling asleep during nap time, when they were supposed to be supervising the children during nap; children having their skin pinched off; children walking away from the facility. And then they went staff member by staff member that allegedly did these things. I stayed at licensing for two hours. And I was shaking, because I have been in the field now for 17 years, and I had never...it was like I was in a horror movie."

Oliver admits to feeling daunted by the task of cleaning up the center but says she accepted the challenge because "those kids needed us and I wanted to make a difference. And I knew that with the right, properly trained staff coming over there that we could make a difference."

Low pay, Oliver believed, was at the root of the staffing problems at the Door of Hope Children's Learning Center. So she petitioned her bosses to offer higher salaries to attract new teachers. "They were only paying teacher's aides $7.50 an hour and teachers $9.00 an hour."

Her bosses, Oliver says, "agreed the new teachers coming in would get $13.75. So a lot of teachers I'd worked with over the years wanted to know about the program. So people started coming over, and they wanted to see the center, and I told them from A to Z what my plans were on turning this facility around and what it was going to take."

One of the new teachers Oliver hired was Felicia Sloan-Hackett, who had worked at Children's Hospital for ten and a half years. "I needed a change," says the 37-year-old Lemon Grove resident, now unemployed, "and [in the Salvation Army day care] I saw a school that needed help. I had worked with Alisa, and I believed in her as a director. As a professional person, she is dynamic. She gets things done. When she says she is going to do something, she does it. She went in there, and she said we are going to change this school around, we are going to make it better, not just for the children, but for the families. That is what her intentions were, and that is what she did."

The move from Children's to Salvation Army involved a pay raise for Sloan-Hackett, from $11.72 an hour to $13.75. Mark Galindo, another former coworker of Oliver's, moved to Salvation Army from Children's, where he'd been for ten years. "When Alisa received the directorship over at the Salvation Army," Galindo recalls, "she called and said, 'Hey, would you be interested?' So I walked over, saw the program, saw the potential, and knew that it would make a huge difference with the families there and with the program. So myself and a few others went over."

Though this hiring was going on, Salvation Army officials weren't sure they wanted to keep the Children's Learning Center open. "Within weeks of her hiring," O'Brien recalls, "I told Alisa that I called licensing to close the program. We had a staffing problem, which generated some licensing fines. And before we could fix the problem, they would fine us again. And the fines were simply coming faster than we could solve the problem. And I called [Community Care Licensing] and said, 'Clearly you have no intention of having us fixing this problem. Your intent is to run us out of business. So we will close the center.' And I did that on a Friday afternoon. By Monday, Alisa was on the phone, 'Please don't close this center. I can turn this around,' she pleaded with me. 'I can hire staff that will do a quality program, and it will be a viable program.' I said, 'How long will it take you to do that?' She said, 'Give me four weeks.' Well, four weeks would have been the end of June, and the center stayed open through the end of September, and we simply didn't have the numbers of kids that made a viable center."

Oliver and some of the teachers she hired believe the Salvation Army delayed closing the Children's Learning Center because they wanted to let the new staff clean up the licensing mess at the center before closing it down. "Every time licensing would walk into that building prior to me coming on," Oliver says, "they were fined. But from March 17 all the way to my last day, they were never fined, not one more dollar. Because I made sure that we were all in ratio, I made sure that the children were being supervised, I made sure that there was adequate qualified staff in there. And we started having higher levels of quality care."

Center files at Community Care Licensing support her claim.

"In hindsight," says Galindo, who's still looking for another job, "I see that the Salvation Army needed to have our team go in there and clean it up for them -- clean up the program and leave it on a good note, so when they reopen it, they'll have a clean bill of health. Otherwise, licensing might have withheld the license or the Salvation Army would have had a bruise on their record and [when they reopened] they would have to tell the new families, 'Well, this is our record.' "

O'Brien says the Salvation Army acted in good faith when it gave Oliver and her staff a chance to turn the place around. "We had no intention of closing the center," he says, "but it simply became unreasonable to maintain a center that required a significant subsidy in a facility that simply wasn't attractive to people. And so we made a decision [to close it], and that was a hard decision."

O'Brien continues, "The center was licensed for 120 kids. When I got here five years ago, we were averaging between 50 and 60 in attendance in the center. As the years progressed, the numbers kept shrinking. What might have been 62 became 55, and then it was down to 50. And when we decided to close the center, Alisa claimed that there were 46 or 47 enrolled in the center. Well, 10 of those kids were children of employees at the center and were getting a free ride.... So the truth of the matter is, she had 37 paying customers. And that is as low as, or lower than, any number that we have had since I have been here. I have to have income from 80 kids to pay the bills there."

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