(WHAS11) -- Dozens of day cares are sanctioned by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services each year, yet few are actually shut down, despite prior documented issues.
After a van accident killed a day care employee and left more than a dozen children injured, we began digging through hundreds of documents and paid a few surprise visits to day cares with histories of problems.
In our exclusive investigation, we take a close look at why it's so difficult to shut down dangerous day cares in Kentucky that could be putting your children at risk.
The first day care center we visited was Big Happy Family Child Development Center.
The center was disciplined by the state last November after children left alone in a van broke a six-month old baby’s arm.
“Are you filming my day care?” owner Dalephonia Booker asked, as we shot video of her daycare from across Taylor Blvd.
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Booker closed Huggie Bears day care back in 2009, after she was cited by the Cabinet for multiple repeated violations, but the Cabinet issued her a new license the following year.
When asked if she met all of the transportation criteria mandated by the state, Booker said, “After that accident, of course.”
The accident Booker is talking about was the Heavenly Angels Day Care Van crash in June, which killed an employee and injured 14 children..
Yet our camera captured Booker’s daycare violating one of the exact same regulations cited in the Heavenly Angels accident report… putting too many children on a van.
We counted 16 children on Booker’s 15 passenger van, which was being operated without having a monitor on board.
State law says only 13 children are allowed on that size van.
Big Happy Family is not the only child care center we found with violations.
Kids Kozy Korner 3 voluntarily surrendered its transportation license after a van driver dropped two children off at their home, even though nobody was there.
Police found the children wandering along a busy four lane highway.
A different Kids Kozy Korner owned by the same person continues to transport children, even though a state report says that same driver worked at both locations, regularly transporting 16-to19 children on each run.
“I think it's probably close to 30 percent who just kind of thumb their noses at regulations, and somehow, they get by with it,” said Susan Vessels, who is Executive Director of Community Coordinated Child Care, or 4C’s.
The organization administered state child care subsidies for the Louisville area for decades.
In July, a different non-profit began administering the subsidies for the entire state.
“Any time there is a concern about imminent danger, that's when those licenses should be suspended, in my opinion, if not completely revoked,” said Vessels.
Documents we obtained show Heavenly Angels was cited multiple times for violating regulations, yet it was allowed to stay in business for years.
Vessels believes Kentucky also fails children by not giving more weight to critical violations than to minor ones.
“Everything is handled the exact same way, whether it's a pin hole inside of the closet on the bulletin board or it's a kid walking down the street unattended,” she said.
We dropped by Big Mama's daycare for a surprise visit.
The center, which has multiple past violations, is owned by Jacqueline Williams, who immediately invited us inside.
“You're gonna have deficiencies. It's gonna always be something they're gonna cite you on,” said Williams.
We looked at Big Mama’s inspection report compared to Heavenly Angels’.
Both were about the same length and had almost the same number of violations… the biggest difference being that most of Big Mama’s citations were for relatively minor violations, like having torn carpet on the stairs.
Most of the Heavenly Angels violations involved safety issues, like overloading vans and not using child seats.
During our investigation we also discovered.. Certain criminal convictions don't disqualify you from working in child care in Kentucky.
We discovered Big Happy Family owner Dalephonia Booker has been convicted twice for possession of marijuana.
Her co-worker Charra Curd is on probation after an armed robbery arrest. She eventually pleaded guilty to felony theft in that case.
WHAS-11 News obtained video of a probation revocation hearing for Curd from July.
“You understand you’ve got a felony conviction. You cannot use marijuana,” Circuit Judge Fred Cowan told her, after Curd allegedly failed six Her probation officer notified the court she failed six drug tests.
“ I work at Big Happy Family as a van driver,” Curd said.
“So you're working in child care. Well, it's especially important that you not be using any drugs. You're a role model and you're dealing with kids. The last thing you ever want to do is be high while you're dealing with kids,” Cowan told Curd.
Curd was involved in an accident while driving kids in a day care center van in June.
The police citation says seven small children were not in car seats.
Curd failed to report the accident to the Cabinet, as required by law.
The same van pulled up with children on board while we were there.
Susan vessels says the state could easily fix the problem without more regulations, by assigning more weight to serious violations and shutting down violators as soon as they're caught.
“We don't want to sacrifice our kids on the altar of due process,” Vessels said.
The Cabinet has a media office with six employees. Also a Secretary, an Inspector General and dozens of attorneys, all paid by taxpayers. Yet not one of them would agree to sit down for an interview about these issues, despite numerous requests.
After the WHAS11 i-Team discovered the violations at Big Happy Family, we contacted the Office of Inspector General, which used our video and other evidence to take away the day care's transportation license.
You can see that report, as well as all of the other sanctions issued against Jefferson County child care centers during the past two years, by clicking on each individual center on our interactive map.
The state response to WHAS11 questions can be viewed by clicking here.