In August 2010, LaToya Brown, 25, of Riverhead was taking college classes and needed a day care center that would accept public assistance for her then year-old daughter, Shamaryah.
She found just one in the area, Kiddie Academy of Riverhead.
More than a year later, in April 2011, Shamaryah was sick with a 105-degree fever, but Ms. Brown didn’t learn of the fever until after 5 p.m., when she picked her daughter up from day care. Ms. Brown said she had made it clear on her daughter’s paperwork that she worked during the day and could only be reached at work or via cell phone. She never received a call to her cell phone, though employees assured her they had tried to reach her. When Ms. Brown got home, she noticed several missed calls from the facility to her home phone number.
“I was livid,” said Ms. Brown, who now works as a home health aide. “That was her last day there.”
In recent weeks, similar stories emerged when former employees and parents recounted tales of incompetence and poor management at the facility, which had its license revoked and suspended in August 2011. It reopened in September under the name Magical Journey, as the News-Review reported at the time, but was shut down again after an inspection Oct. 18.
During that inspection, state officials found that no employees had been “cleared to the necessary background checks” at the day care center, said Pat Cantiello, a spokesperson for the Office of Children and Family Services. Ms. Cantiello said that finding means the facility had not performed database checks with the New York Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment.
In August 2011, the facility had lost its license after being slapped with 79 violations of state child care law. It reopened as Magical Journey because it had lost its franchise agreement with the Kiddie Academy nationwide operation.
The Kroemer Avenue business was purchased in 2006 by Krista and John Donnelly under JJC LI Enterprises, Inc. It was visited by state inspectors on Aug. 26, Aug. 15, July 14, June 29, June 17, June 16, June 10 of this year, and Nov. 8, 2010. It was found with code violations on all those visits.
The Donnellys did not return a call seeking comment. But their attorney, John Ciarelli of Riverhead, said other day care facilities have had similar violations and have not had their licenses suspended by the state, including a residential day care center in Levittown where a 4-month-old died last Thursday.
“I think [the state is] selectively prosecuting Magical Journey,” he said.
It was later found that the Levittown business’ license was suspended, according to an online state database
Although the Riverhead center had been part of the national Kiddie Academy chain, it was independently owned and operated and not affiliated with the neighboring Kiddie Academy centers.
“The former Kiddie Academy in Riverhead … has not been operating as a Kiddie Academy since Sept. 6, 2011, when the franchise agreement was terminated for failing to meet Kiddie Academy standards,” Kiddie Academy spokesperson Parissa Snider said. “As a franchisor, Kiddie Academy provides operational support and training to all of our franchised locations. We work closely with our franchisee partners and expect them to deliver on our promise of setting the standard for educational child care.”
Ms. Snider did not offer comments in response to any specific allegations.
The Donnellys may appeal the license revocation, though they haven’t yet done so, Ms. Cantiello said. They are scheduled for a hearing in December regarding the August charges, she said.
“She bought a turn-key business that she crashed,” one former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of personal retaliation from the owners, said of Ms. Donnelly, who ran the business. The former employee provided a pay stub as proof that she worked at the facility.
She and four other former employees met with a News-Review reporter last week and said the owners often missed orders for supplies — sometimes including food for the students — didn’t fully power the building due to missed electric bills and had trouble paying the workers in full.
The employees sometimes even paid for office and school supplies out of their own pockets, they said.
Every former staffer interviewed said their former employer currently owes them hundreds of dollars in unpaid wages. One said she got a letter from her employer-issued health insurance company in 2007 informing her that her policy had lapsed, even though she had continued to have wages withheld from her paycheck for insurance.
They said the mismanagement led to a revolving door of new staff members at the day care center.
“How do you expect to run a business without paying your employees?” said the employee who had lost her health insurance.
The employees are not the only ones who reported financial wrongdoings by the company.
On Oct. 13, a Ridge father filed a report with Riverhead Town Police claiming he had paid a $250 deposit to Kiddie Academy shortly before the facility closed in August. He also told police another check dated Aug. 24 for $100 was cashed on Oct. 12, though his child never attended the day care facility.
The police report listed someone by the name of Karen Kroog, identified as the business’ “acting director,” and that Ms. Kroog told police the check had been cashed mistakenly and the funds would be refunded.
Another employee said she had trouble obtaining unemployment benefits after the day care center closed because the owners had not filed wage reports with the state Department of Labor in two years.
She said she was able to obtain benefits only after speaking to a supervisor in the department. Two other employees also reported difficulty in obtaining their unemployment benefits.
A spokesperson for the Department of Labor was not able to confirm that information.
As for the allegations by former employees, Mr. Ciarelli, the Donelly’s attorney, said the individuals should have gone through proper channels to rectify their grievances.
“I don’t understand what their motivations is,” he said of the former employees. “If their agenda is to hurt her business, apparently they have succeeded.”
The employees all stressed that no child had been abused or neglected during their time at the facility.
“None of that happened,” said one former staffer who had worked in the day care center before Mr. and Ms. Donnelly took over. “The staff did love the children.”
She added that the high turnover rate and the way staff was treated made it difficult to run the operation smoothly.
“If you have the right owners, it could be an amazing center,” she said.