In this first half of a two-part special, CBS 19's Field Sutton and the Tyler Morning Telegraph's Kenneth Dean examine the records of East Texas daycares and discover abuse and neglect that stretches across the area. See part two here.
There are nearly 800 daycare centers in East Texas responsible for watching over thousands of children while their parents are at work. But how do you pick the right one and how do you make sure it's safe?
One tip led to this investigation. Everything we uncovered comes from state records in which allegations are investigated and confirmed before being released.
And we were shocked by the neglect and abuse that we found.
Back in 2011, video of a Mineola daycare worker slamming a toddler into a table made headlines. The mother of that boy, Rebecca Robertson, never felt like it was resolved--even after the teacher, Jennifer Stone, was convicted and sentenced to probation.
"There wasn't a whole lot of apology as far as 'I'm sorry your son was in this situation,'" Robertson said.
In the last two years just one other case of daycare abuse has made it into the news and just one other caregiver has gone to jail. But records obtained by The Investigators show children are being hurt a lot more often.
We found reports of children locked in dark closets and in bathrooms as a form of punishment. There was a caregiver who left one child sleeping on the floor after accidentally starting a fire in the classroom. It was a state inspector who finally told the teacher to rescue the child.
A teacher hit a child with a stick. Another one told the other children to hit their classmate who was apparently accused of doing something wrong.
And that was just in Smith County.
Armed with a hidden camera, we visited day several daycare centers with documented records of abuse and neglect.
State records indicated a teacher at Tyler's New Life Learning Center kicked one of the children. So we asked to speak with the director.
"She should be here about 3:45," an unidentified worker said. "Hopefully no later than then."
Then we went looking for the pastor over the church and got conflicting stories.
"We're looking for the preacher," Field Sutton said.
"He's on vacation," an unidentified worker said.
"He's on vacation?" Kenneth Dean asked. "Because she just told us he went to go on the bus route."
By that time the first woman we'd spoken with had called the director who decided not to come back to work that day.
"She'll be in tomorrow," the woman said. "I'll let her know [you're coming]."
On the other side of town, records show a toddler at Tyler Metro Children's Center "bit on a vital area of their body by a caregiver, which resulted in a serious injury."
The staff member who answered the door confirmed it.
"I know that caregiver was terminated," Kenneth Dean said.
"Immediately yes," the unidentified worker said.
And the director?
"Out for the day," the worker said.
Our repeated phone calls went un-returned. Tyler Metro's pastor had no comment. Over and over, people passed the buck regarding children's safety.
The first red flag at Tyler's Creative Kids Learning Center was the unlocked front door--which is legal--but an inside door that would keep kids from running out was also wide open despite the sign claiming doors would be locked from 9 to 3.
"That hasn't taken place yet," director Joan Crone said. "That's why it's sitting on [the owner's] desk."
"When is it going to start?" Kenneth Dean asked.
"Probably tomorrow," Crone said.
However, we were there to talk about the state's finding that a caregiver had shoved infants' faces into a mattress in an attempt to get them to go to sleep.
"I can't answer any of that," Crone said. "You would have to talk to the owner about that."
Again the director passed the buck. So we came back and waited until owner Gary Bender showed up.
"If you will look, between April and present time, we have a new director and under the prior supervision that we had, things were not as good as they ought to have been," Bender said.
The only problem with that? State records show the mattress incident and other documented abuse happened one month after the new director started.
"So are you denying that those things happened?" Field Sutton asked.
"Well I'm not denying anything," Bender said.
Bender refused our repeated offers for an on-camera interview. He did agree to speak on the record with the Tyler Morning Telegraph.
Unfortunately, abuse is a problem no matter where you go. In Gregg County a caregiver refused to let a child use the restroom and when the child wet himself he was forced to nap in urine-soaked clothing.
In Angelina County a caregiver ripped a child's elbow out of socket.
And in Rusk County a child had trouble waking up from a nap and was dragged across the floor as punishment.
"It's really simple. Two words: Child Safety. Everything comes back to child safety," Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Spokesperson Shari Pulliam said. "We want to make sure when a parent or a caregiver drops their child or their children off at a daycare center that their child is safe."
Pulliam said the department has eight inspectors enforcing 2,500 policies on all the daycares in 23 East Texas counties.
"The standards are weighted," she said. "So there are very low ones like paperwork issues and things like that and then there are very high issues also."
Only three East Texas daycares have been shut down permanently, which leaves open the question of what happens to the daycares that are cited for abuse and remain open.
Pulliam said the caregiver responsible is almost always fired on the spot. But unless the employee receives a criminal conviction--which is rare--nothing can stop him or her from going to work at your daycare.
"That's unfortunate," Pulliam said. "We hope that daycare directors are networking between themselves, they're talking to each other, they're calling each other and saying, you know, as a reference, we know that Sally worked here. We want to see how she did at your center. We're hoping that that's done."
A very small number of East Texas daycare centers have zero violations on record. Part two of this investigation will go into how daycares are able to meet expectations, and what some are doing to try to turn a negative record around.
It is important to make sure you know what's going on at your daycare. Pulliam said parents should be vigilant, visit the day-care facility unannounced and ask tough questions.
For a quick and easy search tool that lets you see what's happening at your daycare, click here.