Judge allows John Hope day care to stay open

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A judge on Thursday agreed to allow the day care at a long-troubled nonprofit led by a state lawmaker to remain open while it fights regulators’ decision to revoke its license.

In an emergency hearing Thursday morning, R.I. Superior Court Judge Richard Licht sided with the John Hope Settlement House in its request to keep its day care operating despite an order from the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families that it close March 3 due to various violations.

Licht said he was concerned John Hope would suffer irreparable harm if forced to close and argued there was “no immediate threat to the health and safety of these children.” He set a hearing on the dispute for April 17, with a decision to be issued no later than April 24.

“It’s important that children go to day care centers and are well protected,” Licht said. “On the other hand, it’s important that there be day care centers for parents who have to work and who have to provide for their families.”

Licht – a former lieutenant governor and state senator – disclosed during the hearing that he knew the attorneys involved, previously represented the husband of one, and frequented another one’s family business. But he insisted he could still be fair in deciding the case.

“The stay is subject to DCYF’s continued monitoring of the child care center,” DCYF spokeswoman Kerri White said. “We will continue monitoring regulatory and statutory compliance at John Hope Settlement House as the safety and well-being of the children in their care remains our top priority.”

DCYF announced Wednesday it would move forward with revoking John Hope’s child care license after initially trying to do so in November, only to be blocked when John Hope went to court. The organization’s license has been on and off probationary status since 2013.

DCYF made the decision after discovering an employee was working at its day care center despite being barred from doing so by the agency. The agency also cited a lack of documentation to prove another employee had undergone a proper background check.

John Hope, which is chaired by state Rep. Anastasia Williams, has been dogged by financial troubles for years. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello both pulled government funding from the group last June.

“We have done absolutely nothing wrong. And we believe that will prevail,” Williams, D-Providence, said Thursday. She added: “There have been some slip-ups here and there, but it’s not only on the side of the agency.”

Asked what she would say to critics who blame her for John Hope’s current woes, Williams replied: “I am not the problem. The problem has been there far longer than I have been. That’s what I would say. And also, to all of those who would say step down, I would say, ‘Step up.'”

Tiffanie Ruiz, a mother whose two children use John Hope, agreed that the facility is safe and said she has created a petition to support it. “I feel that this is part of my family, when I’m in there,” Ruiz said.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram