Babies smacked, slapped, knocked over at Delaware day care, then director lied to parents about state’s investigation

The Bellevue Learning Center was put on probation and ordered to stop caring for children under age 1. An ex-teacher was indicted for child abuse.

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A building with the word Bellevue written on it.

Bellevue encourages parents to enroll their children and "come grow with us." (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

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The Bellevue Learning Center north of Wilmington entices prospective parents with the promise that their pre-school children would be welcomed into “a family-like atmosphere where each child can grow emotionally, academically, and physically.”

The facility, part of the Bellevue Community Center, boasts on its website that it has a  “5 Star” rating, the highest status awarded by the state Department of Education, and a place where “teachers and staff members make an effort to know your child.”

What the website doesn’t tell parents is that the center — which charged $1,100 a month to care for children under age 1 — was put on probation in May by the Delaware Office of Child Care Licensing for endangering babies with improper discipline, inappropriate care, and safe sleep violations, or that other investigations this year found that caregivers twice left an older child alone on the playground for several minutes.

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The state’s initial investigation, which started with several complaints in February, found dozens of violations, including slapping, smacking, and knocking over babies — actions captured on the center’s surveillance system.

After that probe was concluded, the state cited Bellevue for lying to parents about the state’s finding of mass mistreatment of babies. The deception occurred when then-community center director Joe Wisniewski assured Bellevue’s “awesome’’ parents in a letter that “none of the infants in our care were endangered.” 

The state also ordered Bellevue to stop caring for children under age 1, but Bellevue told parents it had made “the difficult decision” on its own. Bellevue, whose brick exterior wall is covered with a huge mural featuring sunflowers, is still licensed to care for up to 200 children from age 2 through school age.

In addition to the licensing violations, a police investigation that began with the complaints in February led to the arrest of a former teacher in July for second-degree child abuse, a felony punishable by up to two years in prison.

And while Bellevue’s website and two signs outside the center off Philadelphia Pike tout its status as a Delaware “5 Stars” program, the state no longer uses the rating system. The state halted its Delaware Stars program in the fall of 2021, said Alison May of the Department of Education.

A sign on a wall reads Delaware 5 stars A Delaware Stars Program.
Bellevue’s front door touts its status as a “5 Star” center but the state discontinued the rating system two years ago. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Three parents are now suing the center in Delaware Superior Court for negligence, assault and battery, and conspiracy “to actively suppress and conceal the abuse and neglect.”

Jen Sheldon, whose son had been in the center for eight months when she learned about the slew of violations, is one the parents suing Bellevue.

“He was a baby, but I expected that he was being nurtured and held and fed and taken care of while I was away from him,’’ said Sheldon, who contacted WHYY News this month about the treatment infants were subjected to at Bellevue. “That’s kind of the least that you would expect when it comes to a baby. Going forward, I think the goal is to make sure that this gets enough attention so that it doesn’t happen again.”

Wisniewski and Dione Allen, who was child care director when the violations occurred, would not comment on the endangerment of children under their watch. Both told WHYY News they are no longer at Bellevue.

Meg Suarez, who identified herself as the interim child care director during a brief interview, said that “at this point, at this moment in time, the issue has been resolved. There is ongoing communication regarding the issue and we have no further comment at this time.”

When Suarez was reminded that the center remains on probation, a former caregiver has been charged criminally, and that parents are suing, she abruptly hung up.

The criminal charge against Stacey Sims, who had worked in the infant room since it opened in 2019, is for “flicking’’ a baby boy in the forehead in February, causing him to cry, according to her arrest warrant. When a New Castle County police detective questioned Sims about the alleged abuse, she agreed it was inappropriate contact and said she had “no idea” why she had done it, the warrant said.

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Contacted by WHYY News, the 43-year-old Sims said she had no comment on the criminal case, which is set for trial in January.

A playground and a mural in the background that reads Bellevue
Bellevue Learning Center is on probation for serious mistreatment of babies. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Bellevue ‘endangered health, safety, and well-being of infants’

Bellevue Learning Center, which will be on probation through May 2024, is one of Delaware’s 907 licensed child care centers and homes.

It’s one of six currently on probation. In the past year, the state has taken the more drastic steps of suspending 18 facilities and revoking two licenses.

May said in a statement that the licensing office’s “mission is to ensure safeguards and enhance quality of out-of-home care for children.’’ She stressed that parents can find out information about “substantiated complaints and the regulations cited as non-compliant” at Bellevue and other licensed facilities by searching online here.

The state investigation of Bellevue stemming from the February complaints resulted in a 10-page report that documented these and other violations against boys and girls under age 1:

  • Grabbing and carrying babies by the wrists.
  • Knocking them over.
  • Handling them and wiping their faces roughly.
  • Slapping and smacking them.
  • Pushing children away when they approached.
  • Sweeping their hands out from under them.
  • Chasing one with a mattress to frighten the child.
  • Meeting only basic needs, with no positive interactions or activities.
  • Throwing out food when a baby “made a face” after taking one bite.
  • Not holding infants who were feeding from a bottle.
  • Letting them sleep in a bouncy chair, jumper, and on the floor.
  • Putting babies on their stomachs at sleep time instead of their backs, as required, to prevent the risk of suffocation.
  • Leaving blankets in the crib during sleeptime, which is prohibited.
  • Blocking the sides of cribs with mattresses so children could not see or be seen.
  • Not changing diapers frequently enough, and not washing their hands while changing several children.
  • Moving from the diaper changing station to preparing food without washing their hands.

A separate state investigation found additional wrongdoing. That probe began in

April when someone reported that a screaming child whose age was not revealed was left alone for several minutes on the playground in nearly 80 degree weather.

Licensing investigators made an unannounced visit and were told several times by an administrator that the child was outside alone “for less than five minutes,” the report said. Video footage, however, showed that it was actually 12 minutes, said the report, which noted that the center provided “incorrect” information to investigators.

Wisniewski’s May 8 letter, however, whitewashed the results of the state’s investigations. While the one-page letter said an investigation had found that teachers “were not complying” with state regulations and correctly noted that child “abuse” as defined by the state had not been found, he wrote that “none of the infants in our care were endangered.”

Wisniewski’s letter also informed parents that “I have made the difficult decision to close” the infant room because “the safety of our children must come before all else.”

In reality, days earlier the state had informed Bellevue that care of infants “must cease” by May 26, and to immediately remove the 43-year-old Sims and her adult daughter Damara, who also worked there, from the room before then.

Sheldon said this month that she was stunned by Wisniewski’s vague disclosure and the infant room’s imminent closure. She previously had no idea the center had been under investigation, let alone for more than two months.

So Sheldon, an attorney whose practice focuses on regulatory compliance, decided to find out more. She checked the facility’s page on the state licensing website and was appalled by what she read.

“I felt absolutely betrayed, angry, and ready to put up a fight for my son,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon said she swung into action, along with other parents, to immediately report to the licensing office that Wisniewski had deceived parents in his letter.

A headshot of Jen Sheldon, smiling and posing for a photo
Jen Sheldon, one of the parents suing Bellevue for neglect, assault and other counts, says one goal is to ensure its endangerment of children “gets enough attention so that it doesn’t happen again.” (Courtesy of Jen Sheldon)

That spurred the state to conduct a new investigation into allegations that the center was “untruthful when providing information to parents or guardians” its report said.

The state investigator substantiated the new complaint, writing on June 30 that Wisniewski’s letter “contradicted non-compliances previously cited in a finalized complaint report” and stressed that the state had indeed found that caregivers “endangered the health, safety, and well-being of infants.”

When WHYY News reached Wisniewski by phone, he said he resigned on September 30. Asked about the child endangerment, his letter, and the state’s findings, he said, “The policy at the center is that we don’t talk about it. I have no comment.”

Parent calls director’s deception ‘additional level of betrayal’

The substantiated complaints and the state’s rebuke of Wisniewski wasn’t the end of Bellevue’s troubles, however.

On May 19 — eight days after the state notified the center it was being put on probation — the state’s child abuse and neglect hotline received a new report about a child being left outside alone. Investigators reviewed the video footage and determined that a caregiver “did not conduct a face-to-name headcount” before bringing a class inside and that the child was unsupervised for 21 minutes, according to the state’s report.

There was even more trouble in late August, when the state received another complaint about improper discipline in the school-age classroom. Video footage showed one caregiver charging toward the child while yelling. Another caregiver was observed holding an object above a child’s head, leading the child to become “visibly upset and agitated,’’ said the investigative report, in which the state, for the fifth time this year, substantiated a complaint about the child care Bellevue provides.

The exterior of the Bellevue Community Center
The child care center is located inside Bellevue Community Center north of Wilmington. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Meghan Fitzpatrick, one of the parents suing Bellevue, urges other families to check out the state’s licensing website for information about their current child care facility as well as ones where they are thinking of enrolling their kids.

“I think it’s important for every parent to know that the website exists and to check it,’’ she said.

Fitzpatrick wishes she had.

She had been attracted to Bellevue because it was a large center, not a home-based child care.

“We wanted a center because there’s more oversight,’’ she said. “It wasn’t just one caregiver and a bunch of kids. And it was a 5 Star facility and had great community reviews.”

Her baby daughter got on the waiting list, and when a spot opened up, Fitzpatrick took it.

But after their baby’s first day in January, Fitzpatrick and her husband noticed bruising on her at bath time, she said.

The bruises were on her daughter’s inner thighs and belly. “We looked at it and said, ‘it couldn’t possibly be on her first day in child care. There’s no way,’’’ she said. “And we kind of just reasoned it away. I thought, ‘Oh, well, it’s right around where the car seat buckles. Maybe that’s it. To this day, I regret not calling anybody about it.”

Like Sheldon, Fitzpatrick said she was unaware of the investigations until Wisniewski’s letter, which came as her daughter was about to celebrate her first birthday and transition into the toddler room.

“We never thought they were in danger,’’ Fitpatrick said.

Like Sheldon, Fitpatrick was surprised and stunned, and decided to see whether anything was online, then found the state’s website.

The massive list of violations, and the letter minimizing the mistreatment, outraged Fitzpatrick. She immediately stopped sending her child to Bellevue.

“It was just such a slap in the face,’’ she said, “like such an additional level of betrayal. I mean, it was like a school of horrors.”

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