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Plan dropped for monitor on day-care vans

Agency said measure was too expensive, not required

State officials are scrutinizing policies for transporting children in day care, after a Dorchester toddler died this week when he was left unattended in a van for up to six hours. State officials are scrutinizing policies for transporting children in day care, after a Dorchester toddler died this week when he was left unattended in a van for up to six hours. (Bill Brett for The Boston Globe)
By Sean P. Murphy and Scott Allen
Globe Staff / September 16, 2011

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The agency that hired the preschool van driver who left a toddler in a sweltering vehicle for hours had considered adding a second adult to its vehicles earlier this year after another driver was charged with raping a 5-year-old girl on his bus.

But Associated Early Care and Education, which provides transportation to and from day care for 600 children each day, decided not to change its transportation safety policies, even when the charges against Sergio Lara were broadened to include sexual misconduct against two boys and another girl who rode on Lara’s bus. Lara maintains his innocence.

“We considered putting monitors on vans, a second adult, but there is no requirement for that,’’ said Wayne Ysaguirre, chief executive of Associated Early Care and Education, conceding that state regulation of preschool bus drivers is practically nonexistent.

“It’s a nonsystem and a problematic system, and it’s difficult to take on new costs for monitors, especially with all the other cost going up,’’ Ysaguirre said.

Now, Ysaguirre’s nonprofit agency is facing scrutiny in the death of 17-month-old Gabriel Josh-Cazir Pierre this week after he was left unattended in a van for up to six hours because the driver, Luis Matos, failed to notice that the toddler was still in the vehicle at the end of his morning run. Matos, like Lara, runs his own transportation company, but state records show that Associated paid his company $312,772 in 2009 for “subcontracted child transportation.’’

“The governor and I are absolutely outraged over’’ the child’s death and the earlier alleged assaults, said Sherri Killins, commissioner of the state Department of Early Education and Care. “That’s why we are determined to review all state policy so we can take steps to prevent this from ever happening again.’’

She said the department will have a revised policy by Oct. 11. Killins declined to comment on specific aspects of that policy.

State officials say the death of the toddler and the alleged sexual assaults underscore the stakes for tens of thousands of young children who rely on a patchwork of little-regulated private companies to get back and forth.

Associated - a Boston-based organization that reported $16.6 million in revenues in 2010, most of it from the state - provides a variety of services to day-care centers, including payroll, curriculum, and professional development. But the agency subcontracts with private companies to transport the children.

Currently, officials at the Department of Early Education and Care say they have little authority over subcontractors, even though the state pays these agencies $9 per child daily to transport low-income children.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles licenses the drivers, requiring applicants for licenses to drive children to be at least 21 years old, have three years of driving experience, and pass criminal record checks. The Registry also requires applicants to have a satisfactory driving record, be of good moral character, and pass an eye exam, a physical exam, and a written exam.

Matos and Lara were licensed under those rules, though Matos’s license was suspended this week.

But neither the Registry nor any other agency conducts much active oversight, relying on the child-care agencies to police their drivers. As a result, state officials say, drivers are sometimes treated like an afterthought when something goes wrong.

Department of Early Education officials said Associated did not tell them that Lara had been accused of raping a child on his bus until three days after it was reported to police.

Lara apparently had never been convicted of a crime, based on his self-report to Associated, but the former metal worker had a spotty driving record long before he formed Maya Transportation, which operated out of his home in Quincy. Court records show that Lara has been cited for numerous motor vehicle violations, including driving after license suspensions in 2008, 2001, and 1998.

Nonetheless, Associated hired Maya Transportation to transport children to and from schools and day-care centers, paying him $51,989 in 2009, records show.

On March 1, Suffolk County prosecutors say, Lara allegedly dropped off the other children on his bus before taking a 5-year-old girl to an undisclosed location where he sexually assaulted her, told her not to tell anyone, and promised to buy the girl her favorite candy the next day. But the girl told her mother, who called police and rushed her daughter to a hospital.

Associated immediately suspended its contract with Maya Transportation and sent a letter home to parents telling them that a driver had been charged with “inappropriate interaction with a child.’’

But she was not the only bus passenger to become a victim, according to court records. On March 2, a second 5-year-old girl told her mother that Lara had repeatedly touched her private parts even though she told him to stop, prompting police to arrest him that same night.

Police eventually interviewed two brothers, ages 8 and 9, who reported that Lara had separately shown them pictures of nude women on his cellphone, including a photo of a female bus driver, and that he exposed himself in front of them.

Lara, who remains incarcerated awaiting trial, maintains his innocence, according to his attorney, Christopher Coughlin.

“He’s a very hard worker who worked and saved to start his own business,’’ Coughlin said.

Associated’s Ysaguirre said he believes that his agency handled the Lara situation appropriately. He said Lara had been required to attest that he had no criminal background before Associated contracted with him, and the agency immediately suspended him when the first sexual assault charges were leveled.

But Ysaguirre concedes that the more recent tragedy, the toddler’s death, illuminates the lack of oversight of the preschool transportation system in general.

For instance, he said, schools must contact parents when a student does not show up for class on the first day of absence, but day-care providers need not do so until the fourth day. As a result, Gabriel Josh-Cazir Pierre’s day-care provider apparently broke no rules when she apparently failed to contact the child’s mother on the day he died.

“A tragedy like this highlights the failure of the system,’’ said Ysaguirre. “There is only so much one business can tell another business to do,’’ he said, referring to the fact that the transportation companies are subcontractors.

Ysaguirre acknowledged that his agency dropped the idea of adding monitors to preschool vehicles in part because the cost would be so high, but he stressed that Associated has supported the idea of putting monitors on vans statewide, as long as the state helps to pay for it.

“We supported that idea,’’ he said, but he added there was not enough money in the state system to support it.

Now, Ysaguirre said, agency officials want to install buzzers at the back of vans and buses that sound when the engine is turned off, requiring the driver to walk the length of the bus to turn it off, presumably noticing any remaining passengers.

“Will it solve all problems? I seriously doubt it,’’ Ysaguirre said. “It is one concrete act, where we can share the lessons learned.’’

Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Allen can be reached at allen@globe.com.