IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Inspectors found some violations at a large Iowa daycare center when it was owned by acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, including deficiencies in 2007 that prompted a downgrade in its license status, according to records released Monday.
Whitaker and his wife owned Little Endeavors in his hometown of Ankeny, Iowa, a center with a capacity for 204 children from newborn to school-age, from 2003 until 2015. He has said that owning the center and other businesses has given him valuable experience.
The Associated Press obtained 49 pages of complaints and inspection records covering Whitaker’s ownership under the Iowa open records law. They paint a mostly positive picture of Little Endeavors but also show persistent concerns about a shortage of toys and supplies in some rooms and occasionally serious safety incidents.
Whitaker’s ownership of the daycare is part of the unorthodox background he brings to the nation’s top law enforcement position and is one of many aspects of his past that has come under scrutiny since his appointment by President Donald Trump.
Trump named Whitaker, who had been Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff, to the top Justice Department job on Nov. 7 after asking Sessions to resign. Critics fear that Whitaker, a former federal prosecutor and Republican Party loyalist, was installed to protect Trump from special counsel Robert Mueller.
Whitaker and his wife employed a director and assistant director who ran the day-to-day operations, managing a staff that included full- and part-time teachers, records show.
During their tenure, some of the most significant problems involved a teacher who allegedly force fed some children to the point of vomiting in 2014, held a blanket over a frightened child’s head during nap time and mistreated others. The teacher was on leave when inspectors visited and never returned to work.
In two other serious cases, a child went missing during a field trip to a state lake until he was returned to staff by a woman; another was left sleeping unattended in a room for several minutes when the class left for a trip. Staff took responsibility for those lapses, records show.
The Iowa Department of Human Services put the daycare on a provisional license from December 2007 until July 2008 after it was cited for several licensing violations. Those included toys and other supplies that needed to be replenished or replaced, a staff shortage in one infant room, and staff who didn’t get required annual training, among other problems. After corrective action, its full license was restored in 2008.
But concerns about the shortage of toys and supplies persisted before and after then. Inspection reports from visits in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012 noted shortages of play items in one or more of the rooms and noted that a lack of stimulation may have contributed to a biting problem among toddlers early during the Whitakers’ tenure.
“As I walked through each room in the center, it was obvious more toys and equipment are needed,” one inspector warned in 2004. “If you want to provide high quality care, more supplies need to be provided in the classroom.”
But similar problems continued to be noted. During one 2009 visit, an inspector noted that children in one room were “just wandering around the room as if they were looking for something to do.”
“When some puzzles and other play things were found and put out for these children, it was like Christmas morning,” the inspector wrote.
In 2010, an inspector criticized a Lego area that only had “a dozen or so pieces.” In 2012, an inspector found “five or six different puzzles in separate baggies,” with no pictures of what the puzzles should look like when completed.
After the Whitakers sold the center in 2015, the building was repainted and “old and broken toys” were replaced, a report shows. Morale among staff improved because they felt listened to by the new director and can “request supplies for their rooms and be able to get them now instead of having to use their own money,” it said.
A Justice Department spokeswoman had no immediate comment about the inspections of the daycare.
During his 2011 interview for Iowa Supreme Court vacancies, Whitaker said his ownership of the daycare, a law firm and other small businesses gave him “strong administrative experience.”
“That gives me a perspective on business and how the law affects business, and also how small business owners work and make money,” he said.