The Louisiana Department of Education lacks an effective process to investigate child care complaints, failed to quickly check on reports of providers operating illegally and sometimes neglected to issue enforcement actions when problems were found, Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said in an audit released Monday.

The department also does not follow key national practices, including child to staff ratios, and is one of just eight states that allows families and in-home providers to care for more than six children without a license, according to the review.

In their response, department officials said they are working to move Louisiana closer to national standards. They also said shortcomings found in five other areas, including criticism that its website lacks child care information required by law, have been "resolved."

“The LDOE agrees with all of the LLA’s findings and immediate steps have been taken to implement new procedures and practices aligned with the recommendations," Bridget Devlin, chief operating officer for the department, said in an email Monday.

Louisiana has 1,780 child care providers for 44,656 children.

Oversight of the centers was moved to the Louisiana Department of Education in 2014.

Purpera's review said the agency does not centrally track child care complaints and does not consistently document whether the complaints were substantiated.

During a 12-month period from 2016-17, one department record showed that 8.2 percent of complaints were backed up while another record said 19 percent were.

In addition, the agency's time frame for checking hotline and other complaints is longer than best practices recommend and even then department officials fail to follow their own procedures.

Reports of a death are supposed to be checked within five days, children mysteriously showing bruises within 10 days and questions about supervision within 30 days.

But nearly one out of three complaints – 32 percent – were not checked within the department's own time-frame – 251 cases, according to the audit.

Also, the department lacks a formal process to investigate complaints on family providers and needs to make unannounced inspections, Purpera said.

Those complaints included reports of an older sibling picking up and holding a 10-month old baby by the neck; a provider unable to care for children because of advanced dementia and Alzheimer's disease and a child that sustained second-degree burns to his left hand after being left unsupervised in a room with an open flame heater, which required hospital treatment.

In one case, the audit said, officials discovered that a convicted rapist was living in the home of a family provider.

"Effective documenting and tracking of complaints on family and in-home providers is important to ensure the safety of children cared for in these settings," the report says.

In its written response, the department said initial time-frames were overly ambitious and have since been changed.

It also said that, since July 1, state oversight of family and in-home providers has been established, including unannounced visits.

Child care standards are set by the department in conjunction with the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

But Purpera said Louisiana is one of 13 states that do not meet recommended staff/child ratios for any age.

The recommended ratios from birth to age 1 is one staff member for four babies.

In Louisiana is it 1:5.

The national standard for one-year olds is 1:4 and it is 1:7 in Louisiana.

The recommendation for two-year olds is 1:6 compared to 1:11 here.

Louisiana also allows bigger groups of children than the number recommended by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The department said Monday it plans to hold talks with elected officials and stakeholders on how state oversight rules can be moved closer to national norms.

In other areas, the report said department officials in 53 percent of cases failed to timely investigate reports of child care providers operating illegally.

The department agreed with the finding and said procedures have been revised.

The audit also said the agency failed to issue formal corrective action plans, as required by law, in nearly every one of 1,718 inspections that identified at least one deficiency that required a remedial plan.

Department officials disputed that claim.

The report said that, while Louisiana was ranked 49th for child care oversight and regulation in 2013, the state Department of Education has since made improvements.

The agency has issued requirements for comprehensive, fingerprint-based background checks on providers, increased training requirements for providers and staff and trimmed the time allowed for children to watch television and play video games.

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