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Illustrating a Day-Care Dilemma

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The controversy over Carla Marie Faith’s home day-care center raises two questions that strike directly at the Achilles’ heel of most working moms and dads:

How do you find responsible people to take care of your preschool children while you’re out making a living?

And how do you know whether dangerous conditions could be fostered at places that on their face look like God’s gift to a conscientious parent?

For years, Faith, a mother of five, has run Faith Family Day Care on a shaded residential street in Culver City with child-safe speed bumps that she pestered the city to install. She calls the business a labor of love.

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The licensed center--built in Faith’s converted garage and frontyard by her do-it-yourself husband, James--is a veritable child’s dreamscape, featuring plastic slides, playhouses and a tiny corral housing a menagerie of ducks and geese. Inside, there’s a vast collection of books and stuffed animals.

Recent charges against Faith, however, aren’t so child-friendly.

At issue is whether she has secretly housed children in unlicensed facilities, operated under unsafe conditions and repeatedly handled dozens of toddlers at her house despite being licensed to care for only 12.

The charges have locked Faith in a bitter debate with outraged parents and the state Department of Social Services. Having already closed down two of Faith’s unlicensed facilities elsewhere in Culver City, the state is now threatening to take her license away for good.

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Faith acknowledges having opened new child-care homes without licenses, but says she was applying for those licenses when the state moved in.

“It’s simply harassment,” she said.

This month, investigators visited one of the unlicensed centers, on Lafayette Place, and found 44 small children, according to documents.

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At that home, state workers also found “many hazardous materials in the yard, including building materials, spa, tools, cactus plants,” their report said.

Worse yet, after initially being denied entry to the residence, investigators found two staff members hurrying off through an alley with 31 children between 18 months and 4 years of age. Thirteen children were inside the home, according to the incident report.

“They were racing the children down the alley to a place where they could hide,” said one investigator who spoke on condition of anonymity. “These were little kids, tripping and falling as they were being herded along. Some didn’t even have shoes on. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The raid was the most recent in a series involving Faith, officials said.

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In 1991, she was placed on five years’ probation after investigators found her at a local park with 23 children--nine above her legal capacity--whose parents had not been notified of the field trip.

A few weeks ago, officials closed down a home that Faith had opened on Madison Avenue, next to her licensed center. Shortly afterward, they shut down the unlicensed Lafayette Place home.

Ann Ceely, president of Westside Providers, a family child-care support group with 30 members, says the Faith case shows that even minimal state child-care standards are often difficult to enforce.

“Apparently she doesn’t think the rules are meant for her,” Ceely said. “Children are at risk. Try to imagine 44 children at one home. How are they ever going to be fed and diapered and cared for? It’s unbelievable to me.”

Faith says she is being unfairly singled out.

“They don’t like me because I don’t always follow their rules,” she said of investigators. “Do I occasionally run over capacity? Yes, I do.”

Still, she says she has never exceeded 18 children at any facility and has two assistants--creating a ratio of six children to one adult that she says is completely acceptable to parents.

Faith said she was in the process of applying for state licenses on the home next door to hers when she discovered that local ordinances did not permit two day-care facilities within 300 feet of each other.

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She said she then put the adjacent house up for sale. To give parents time to find other child care, she said, she moved 18 children to the home on Lafayette Place that was eventually raided by investigators.

Why would Faith even operate a facility before being granted a license?: “I’m just trying to stay financially afloat,” she said.

Several parents have pulled their children from Faith’s center, which they once compared to Disneyland.

Germaine Abood said: “I want her to lose her license, and I don’t want her ever near children again.”

Laura Mendoza said she repeatedly saw 30 children at Faith’s facility. “Carla lied to me,” she said. “She said she had a license for that many children. And she didn’t.”

Faith has her supporters--parents who dismiss the allegations of overcrowding and lack of safety as the complaints of a few disgruntled former clients.

“I love this place,” Cathy Dunwoody said as she dropped off her son Billy. “I’ve looked at a lot of other schools, and nothing compares to this. There’s no place else for my child to get the love and attention he gets here.”

This month, in the midst of the controversy, Faith closed her center for two weeks. Some mothers say they were lost without her.

“This is the best day-care center on the planet,” Shirah Roth said as she delivered daughter Liliana before rushing off to a bookkeeping job.

“This is the only place I’ve found where she’s happy to come to, where she’s not screaming when I leave.”

In the face of growing state scrutiny, Faith said she will persevere.

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Dressed in denim overalls, she beckoned from inside the white picket fence of her home as the children arrived for yet another morning. Under frilly sun bonnets and baseball caps, their mothers in tow, the young ones trundled past.

Tiny 2 1/2-year-old Tiffani was one of nine children dropped off. Faith held the little girl next to the intercom so she could say goodbye to her mother, who by then was out by the front gate.

“Bye, Mom,” Tiffani said. “I love you.”

Faith said she believes that those parents who remain loyal will keep her in business. “My last name is Faith,” she said. “And that’s what I’ve had to have a lot of these days.”


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