Iowa day care owned by acting attorney general drew inspection concerns

An Iowa day care center owned for over a decade by acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was cited for several state licensing violations and had its status temporarily downgraded in 2007 after an inspection report found several paperwork infractions and a lack of supplies for certain age groups, according to records released this week.

Whitaker owned the center, Little Endeavors, along with his wife from 2003 to 2015 and has cited it as a qualifier of his “strong administrative experience.” Years of official evaluations of the company were released on Monday by the Iowa Department of Human Services after a public records request that was filed and first reported on by the Associated Press.

The facility in Whitaker’s hometown of Ankeny, Iowa, at times didn’t have enough toys for its young children, which may have fueled a biting problem in 2004, one report said. And in 2012, a 3-year-old from the center was found alone in a parking lot during a field trip to a lake, according to another report.

Little Endeavors was managed day-to-day by employees and not by Whitaker or his wife, and the records reflect mostly positive inspections at the center, with a state official regularly noting over years of reports that the center’s “children appeared happy and were engaged in age appropriate play and activities.”

However, the annual inspection reports reveal a handful of episodes and some patterns of “deficiencies” over years that were fixed after the state made note of them.

Whitaker’s resume has been scrutinized since his sudden installation as the acting head of the Department of Justice by President Donald Trump earlier this month, and critics of the White House have called him unqualified.

The one-time US attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, Whitaker was a relative newcomer to Washington when he joined the Justice Department in 2017 as the chief of staff to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Before that, he had run an ethics watchdog group in DC that he founded in 2014 to go after GOP-favored targets and appeared on CNN as a legal commentator.

In Iowa, he owned his own law firm as well as a trailer manufacturing company and was involved in local politics. He tried unsuccessfully for a seat in the Iowa judiciary in 2010, and ran unsuccessful campaigns for Iowa state treasurer in 2002 and the state’s open US Senate seat in 2014.

“I think I bring strong administrative experience — not just my time as US attorney, but I’m also a small business owner,” he said in an interview before Iowa’s judicial nominating commission in 2011, listing the day care among his companies. “I think that gives me a perspective into business and how the law affects business, and also how small business owners work and make money.”

In a statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said: “Professional management ran Little Endeavors during the time Acting Attorney General Whitaker and his wife owned it. Any issues were dealt with promptly and appropriately.”

“Little Endeavors was and continues to be a well-loved and popular childcare development center in the Ankeny community,” Kupec said.

The facility, with a capacity for 204, was attended by children ranging from infancy to school-age, the records show.

After several annual visits to the daycare center dating back to 2004, a state inspector lamented that there were too few toys at Little Endeavors: “just a dozen or so pieces” of Legos, “a half dozen soft building blocks” for a room of toddlers.

In 2009, children were “observed to be just wandering around the room as if they were looking for something to do,” the inspector wrote. “When some puzzles and other play things were found and put out for these children, it was like Christmas morning.”

“The toddler rooms have had biting problems in the past. A contributing part of that may have been the lack of enough toys and not enough variety in the toys they did have,” the inspector wrote.

Employees were also faulted for failing to complete physicals and trainings, and for under-staffing certain rooms, out of line with safety regulations and contributing to the downgrading of the center’s license to a “provisional” status in 2007. The license was restored to full status the next year after corrective action was taken.

In 2014, a staff member was said to have force-fed a child to the point of vomiting, and was accused of physically dragging another young girl from one seat to another at a table, according to a complaint report from the state agency. When an inspector made an unannounced visit to Little Endeavors after the complaint was made, management said the employee was on a leave of absence based on alleged incidents, and “the decision was later made that [the employee] did not return to the center,” one report said.

Staff members said that they were “very remorseful” in 2012 after an episode where a 3-year-old apparently wandered off from a group outing and was found minutes later by a woman who returned him to the center’s staff, according to another report. A similar incident occurred in 2005 where, according to a state complaint, staff forgot and left alone a child sleeping in a classroom for five to seven minutes. One classroom teacher accepted responsibility for the lapse and was temporarily suspended, the complaint says.

Child care experts, like Michelle McCready, the deputy executive director of Child Care Aware of America, say that administrative and filing violations at facilities are not uncommon, but that a safety problem that is reoccurring is cause for concern and the notification of parents and authorities.

“I don’t know the inspector, I don’t know the validity of all of it, but I do know that if there’s a pattern, that one would ask the question why, and how could it be addressed,” McCready said.

In an email to CNN, Eric Kohlsdorf, the co-owner of Little Endeavors who bought the center from Whitaker in 2015, noted the acting attorney general is no longer involved in any business decisions at the day care, and said, “We are also not privy to the details of any complaints or praises that occurred prior to our ownership.”

“We continue to focus on providing a safe, loving, and educational environment for the children and families we serve and a fun atmosphere for employees to work. We have and continue to be a well-respected child care center in the surrounding communities we serve as well as a good civic partner,” Kohlsdorf said.