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Punkin Patch day care center to close Friday after being smashed by too many regulations

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A mother and daughter-in-law who started Punkin’ Patch day care center, which will close Friday, said their dream of starting a business was smashed by state violations and a pay freeze on assistance for low-income families.

Owner Patricia A. Shatraw and daughter-in-law Cortney A. Shatraw, who opened the center at 320 W. Lynde St. at the former site of the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Day Care in December, say a two-month pay freeze on assistance for low-income families by the state Department of Social Services was the main cause of their business’s collapse, as about 40 children were pulled from the program.

The center started out as a popular site for low-income families in Watertown who received aid from DSS. Enrollment peaked in early June, with 87 children ranging from infants, toddlers, preschoolers and school-aged children from ages 6 to 12.

But then came the bad news.

Monthly inspections resulted in 32 violations from May through July at the center. Cortney Shatraw said one of the inspectors from the state Office of Children and Family Services hit the center with about 10 citations the three times she stopped by. She said the inspector, who she didn’t identify, issued citations that included a scratched toilet seat vulnerable to bacteria, childproof doorknobs and using “sporks” instead of spoons as utensils.

The state’s view is somewhat broader: the goal of the monthly inspection policy is to ensure children are in a safe, healthy environment, said OCFS spokeswoman Susan Steele. While the violations posed a financial challenge for the center, she said they were needed to ensure its operations met requirements.

“The owner isn’t qualified, but wants to run (the center) herself, and you just can’t allow those things to happen,” she said. “There had been unfortunate incidents where some pretty bad things happened, and we’re trying to avoid that but not trying to shut people down. Day care centers are all held to the same standard, and that ultimately ensures the safety and well-being of their children, and I think that’s the goal of any parent to make sure their children are well cared for.”

Although violations are commonplace at day care centers, Cortney Shatraw said, the provider’s relatively long list of mistakes caught the attention of the state Department of Social Services before the center had time to correct them. When DSS made an unannounced inspection in June, the center was cited for not getting signatures for parents on time cards when their children check in and out.

Though they didn’t know it at the time, Mrs. Shatraw said, DSS decertified the center because of its ongoing violations. She said they first discovered something was amiss when no payment arrived for the month of May during the third week of June when it should have.

Payments for some 40 low-income parents with enrolled children were discontinued for May and June. As a result, families who relied on those payments quickly started pulling their children out of the program, Mrs. Shatraw said. Only five of the 33 children now enrolled at the center are receiving aid from DSS.

About 20 families still owe back payments to the center. Those outstanding payments range from $68 to $4,000.

“We lost a lot of kids and a lot of money,” Mrs. Shatraw said. “And once you lose kids, you can’t make it up.”

Along with combating the pay freeze, the center had to foot an expensive bill to enroll two of its employees in a training course offered by the Community Action Planning Council of Jefferson County. The six-week course was required by the OCFS to rectify a violation that handed down after a child was found in a bathroom without the knowledge of supervisors. Those two employees resigned before completing the training in August, however.

Another lingering violation stemmed from the June resignation of former director Mary A. Haigh. The center submitted six applications from candidates to the state for approval, Mrs. Shatraw said, but none of them were accepted.

In a desperate attempt to keep the business from sinking, in August the center acquired a $40,000 loan from the Watertown Local Development Corp. to pay off debt and purchase equipment to correct violations. But low enrollment and unpaid debt from clients doomed the comeback effort.

“If our enrollment had stayed up, we could have muddled our way through this,” said Patricia Shatraw, who will now seek full-time employment to pay off the debt. “I’ve got to find a job wherever I can.”

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