Several local families allege that their children were abused or mistreated by staff at Open Arms Child Development Center in Fairbanks.
Brittany Hunt, a mother whose child attended Open Arms, said she witnessed a toddler being thrown outside by a teacher into sub-zero temperatures in February.
“As soon as I got to the gate of Open Arms to leave the play area, I heard a scream,” she recalled. “When I turned around, I could only see a little boy with blonde hair and his skin was white, like just so white. I just remember that.”
Hunt, who said it was 25 below zero the morning the alleged incident occurred, said that the toddler was not adequately dressed for freezing temperatures. “He had no socks on, no shoes, no clothes, just the pull up. And the way he cried, it was like he needed help.”
“I still remember his face and the way he was picking up his feet from the ground. It was awful,” she added. “As soon as I got close enough to him, the door opened and I heard the teachers say, ‘Are you done yet?’ And she grabbed him by the arm and yanked him back in the room.”
“It was a span of two to three minutes,” Hunt said. “It felt like a lifetime.”
Hunt said she immediately reported the incident to a staff member and later spoke with Open Arms’ director Maria Vilchez, who informed her that she had “full faith in her employees” and the teacher would not be terminated.
“She didn’t ask me what I saw or anything, she just said ‘It’s being reported to who it needs to be reported to, everything will be taken care of and the parents will be notified,’” Hunt said.
Vilchez confirmed by email to the News-Miner that Open Arms “has received certain parent complaints that it has both investigated and has reported to government authorities for investigation. Open Arms cooperates fully with government investigators,” she wrote, and “all reports of abuse are shared with government authorities.”
Fairbanks attorney Amy Tallerico said the above incident is just one example in a pervasive pattern of child maltreatment by staff at Open Arms. Tallerico represents three families that have allegedly had their children abused or mistreated by staff at the childcare center.
One family represented by Tallerico alleges that their child suffered from Nursemaid’s Elbow — a common injury in early childhood that occurs when a child’s elbow is pulled and partially dislocates — after being grabbed by an assistant teacher in April. After speaking with Vilchez the following day and learning that an incident report had yet not been created, the parents immediately withdrew their child from Open Arms and reported the incident to the Office of Children’s Services.
In another instance, a former assistant teacher reportedly witnessed a lead preschool teacher force-feed a child by shoving food inside their mouth and later witnessed the same teacher forcefully pin a toddler to the ground after they refused to nap.
Vilchez said by email that any staff member accused of abuse is subject to investigation.“... If the claim is substantiated, then it is subject to discipline including up to employment termination.”
According to Open Arms’ employee manual, “Best practices for child guidance are often debatable … Even in instances when the claim is found to have merit, disciplining employees becomes a matter of discretion, potentially subject to Open Arms’ four-part ‘disciplinary steps’ procedure.”
Tallerico said her client’s demand that Open Arms immediately end the practice of punishing children by placing them outside in extreme temperatures, implement a zero tolerance policy for physical abuse, install video cameras in all classrooms and terminate any staff member accused of multiple reports of abuse.
Vilchez confirmed that one teacher accused of abuse is still employed at the facility. “... Simply being accused is not the equivalent of being found to have violated a policy or standard,” Vilchez said. “Open Arms has obligations to dealing fairly with its employees. Often the standard to be applied is debatable.”
“The daycare has an obligation and a duty to keep those children safe and to make sure that there’s no abuse,” Tallerico said. “And when they keep teachers employed where they have confirmation from assistant teachers that have seen abuse or multiple reports of abuse of children they should absolutely have a zero tolerance policy and the teacher should be terminated. And that didn’t happen here,” Tallerico said. “Safety is the number one issue here.”
Open Arms plans to install cameras in classrooms “in 2022, if not before,” Vilchez said.