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Hazards found rife at Head Starts

By Kimberly Hefling
Associated Press / December 13, 2011
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WASHINGTON - A machete left near an outdoor play area. Household chemicals accessible to preschoolers. Widespread failures to conduct criminal background checks of employees.

These violations and others were found at Head Start centers across the country, according to a report released today by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Head Start is the federal program with roots in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty that today provides early education services to nearly 1 million poor children nationwide. The federal government gives grant dollars to public, nonprofit, and profit programs to provide the services.

Other safety violations found at centers: a screw protruding from a bookcase at child-height level in Longmont, Colo.; a children’s bathroom in Edna, Texas, without lighting for months; and expired infant formula found in the refrigerator in the District of Columbia.

The inspector general’s review was compiled using 24 audits of Head Start grantees running 175 facilities in eight states from May 2009 to October 2010. While the review was of just a fraction of the approximately 1,600 Head Start grantees, it raises red flags about the safety of children in such programs.

According to the review:

■Twenty-one of 24 grantees did not fully comply with federal Head Start or state requirements to conduct criminal and other background checks.

■Nearly 90 percent of the facilities had toxic chemicals such as cleaning supplies accessible to children.

■More than 70 percent had open or broken gates leading to parking lots, streets, or unsupervised areas, and inadequate or broken fences.

■More than half had playground equipment that was not in good condition, with problems such as protruding bolts, broken climbing apparatuses, and elevated platforms without protective guards.

The inspector general recommended that the Administration for Families and Children, which falls under Health and Human Services and oversees Head Start, conduct on-site monitoring to ensure that centers comply with health and safety regulations.

It also called for the agency to determine whether it should seek legislation to require periodic background checks for Head Start employees and amend current policies to require that prospective or current employees be disqualified or terminated if they have been convicted of sexual abuse of a child or other forms of child abuse.

In response, the Administration for Families and Children said it “takes health and safety regulations very seriously and regularly monitors’’ programs for compliance.

Of the 24 grantees audited, three have since had Head Start dollars revoked and the others corrected the deficiencies, the Administration for Families and Children said. It also said it is reviewing the suggested policy changes.

Ensuring quality in Head Start programs has been an ongoing issue. Last month at a stop in Yeadon, Pa., President Obama called Head Start “an outstanding program and a critical investment,’’ but said more accountability was needed.

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