WASHINGTON - It's the kind of stuff that gives moms nightmares: a machete near a play area, household chemicals accessible to preschoolers, and instructors teaching without a criminal background check.
Head Start, the federal program with roots in President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, provides early education services to nearly 1 million low-income kids nationwide. The federal government gives grant dollars to public, nonprofit and for-profit programs to provide the services.
Among the violations found: a screw protruding from a bookcase at child-height level in Longmont, Colo.; a children's bathroom in Edna, Texas, without lighting for months; and expired infant formula in the refrigerator of a center in the District of Columbia.
The inspector general's review was compiled using 24 audits of Head Start grantees running 175 facilities in seven states Connecticut, New York, Georgia, Wisconsin, Texas, Colorado and California and the District of Columbia from May 2009 to October 2010. While the review was of just a fraction of the approximately 1,600 Head Start grantees, it still raises red flags about the safety of children in such programs.
All told, according to the review:
- Twenty-one of 24 grantees did not comply fully with federal Head Start or state requirements to conduct criminal and other background checks.
- Nearly 90 percent of the facilities had toxic chemicals labeled "keep out of reach of children" and cleaning supplies accessible to children.
- More than 70 percent had open or broken gates leading to parking lots, streets or unsupervised areas and inadequate or broken fences.
- More than half had playground equipment that was not in good repair with problems such as protruding bolts, broken climbing apparatuses and elevated platforms without protective guards.
The inspector general recommended that the Administration for Families and Children, which falls under HHS and oversees Head Start, conduct onsite monitoring to ensure that centers comply with health and safety regulations.
It also called for the agency to determine whether it should seek legislation to require periodic background checks for Head Start employees and amend current policies to require that prospective or current employees be disqualified or terminated if they've been convicted of sexual abuse of a child or other forms of child abuse.
In response, the Administration for Families and Children said it "takes health and safety regulations very seriously and regularly monitors" under safety regulations.
Of the 24 grantees audited, three have since had Head Start dollars revoked and the others corrected the deficiencies, the Administration for Families and Children said. It also said it is reviewing the suggested policy changes.
Ensuring quality in Head Start programs has been an ongoing issue. Last month at a stop in Yeadon, Pa., President Barack Obama called Head Start "an outstanding program and a critical investment," but he said more accountability was needed. Under new rules that he announced, lower-performing Head Start programs will have to compete for funding if they have deficiencies discovered in their onsite review or don't meet other standards.
In most cases, the centers said in letters included in the audits that they had taken action to fix the problems found.
In Waterbury, Conn., a machete was found unattended along with a gas-powered hedge trimmer near a children's play area at a facility operated by the nonprofit New Opportunities Inc. Policies have been changed so that work crews do routine maintenance in the evenings and weekends when children are not present, Toni Hirst, the chief administrative officer, said in a phone interview. She said children were never in close proximity to the machete and hedge trimmer. She said the look at the center by the outside reviewers was helpful.
"By no means would we do anything that would lead a child to harm," Hirst said.