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Child-care operator slipped through cracks in 2 states

In February of this year, child-care licensing authorities in Brooklyn faulted Cecily Roberts for failing to personally oversee the day-care center she operated out of her Ditmas Park home.

It turns out Roberts was otherwise occupied: She also was running a day-care center more than 1,200 miles away — in Sunrise, Fla. And it, too, had a less-than-stellar regulatory history.

The two day-care centers had something else in common. They were located in the only two states in the U.S. with laws that make it a crime to misrepresent information about a day-care center. Roberts, 43, was charged last week with violating that law — which was named after a boy who died in January 1997, at a home that was, like Roberts’ Sunrise facility, operating above its licensed capacity. Roberts also has been charged with aggravated manslaughter in the death of 4-year-old Jordan Coleman, who perished in a sweltering van last August, police say after Roberts had her daughter try to hide him and seven other youngsters from licensing administrators.

Roberts’ prosecution likely is the first of its kind under Jeremy’s Law, which, in 1999, set penalties for child-care operators who lie to parents or licensing authorities.

New York detectives arrested Roberts last Friday, at the Brooklyn home in which she operated L.R. Academy, which provided 24-hour child care services for children up to age 12. The Broward Sheriff’s Office, in a prepared statement, said detectives were “shocked” to learn Roberts was operating a child-care center in New York after she had been linked to Jordan’s death in Florida a month earlier.

Records show that Roberts opened L.R. Academy in 2010. Alexandra Waldhorn, a spokeswoman for the New York City Health Department, said her agency has asked child-care administrators in Albany to suspend or revoke Roberts’ license following recent events in Florida.

Health administrators returned to L.R. on Monday, Waldhorn said, but did not find anyone providing child-care services at the site. Otherwise, Waldhorn’s agency has refused to discuss its history with Roberts, despite repeated requests from The Miami Herald.

Online records show Roberts was first licensed to operate L.R. Academy in March 2010, at 418 E 23rd St in Brooklyn. Her license allows her to care for 12 children — from six weeks to 12 years of age, and an additional four school-aged children. She was required to maintain a two-to-one ratio of children to staff for youngsters below age two.

Since November 2010, the New York Health Department has cited Roberts 25 times for violations of state law, sometimes on multiple occasions for the same deficiency.

On Dec. 30 2011, for example, inspectors cited L.R. Academy for failing to have installed railings or barriers to prevent children from falling. Records show Roberts “corrected” the deficiency. Less than two months later, though, inspectors once again cited L.R. for lacking safety barriers. The violation was noted, again, to be corrected, until three weeks later, on Feb. 29, when Roberts was cited again. The Feb. 29 violation also was listed as corrected until March 8 and April 10 when, once again, inspectors faulted her for failing to have installed safety railings.

Waldhorn did not respond to questions, both over the phone and in writing, as to whether her agency had disciplined Roberts for the more than two dozen violations they documented.

The Herald also has been unable to reach administrators of the Broward County licensing agency, which had cited Roberts’ 3C’s Day Academy in Sunrise at least 42 times since it opened in 2008.

Among the violations: Roberts was repeatedly cited for caring for more children than her license allowed, and for leaving the youngsters — some of them infants — in the care of her daughter. The daughter, Camile Gordon, was 18 when Roberts was first faulted, below the age required to operate a day-care center.

On Aug. 2, the day after Jordan’s death, The Broward County Human Services Department, which performs such inspections under contract with the state, added five new violations to the tally, including failure to perform background checks on staff, allowing underage caregivers to oversee youngsters, and removing eight children from the home without the permission of their parents. She also was faulted for having only one safety seat in the van with the youngsters, including six preschoolers.

It was the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which investigates child abuse and neglect allegations for the state Department of Children & Families, that ordered the home shut down.

Steven Effman, a Plantation lawyer who sponsored Jeremy’s Law during his four years in the Florida Legislature, said the bill was designed to add a powerful weapon to regulators’ toolboxes that would discourage child-care operators from running their homes well above their licensed capacity — and then lying about it to parents and regulators.

“Of course I’m disappointed,” Effman said Wednesday. “The reason for the law was to protect the most vulnerable in our society — little babies and little kids who can’t defend themselves.”

If regulators and prosecutors had enforced the law, Effman said, owners such as Roberts may have thought twice before filling her house with small children she was ill-equipped to care for. The law, he said, could have been applied in cases where operators were lying about the number of kids in their homes, while being paid to care for them.

“It’s unfortunate that these terrible tragedies have to occur before people realize that these laws are on the books to address these problems,” Effman said.