Head stop

Calling last week’s closure and subsequent federal takeover of the entire Butte County Head Start program “drastic” and “heavy-handed,” program director Thomas Tenorio said the county has formally asked the federal government for a hearing in order to clear up inaccuracies that led to the program’s closure.

“Most funding sources would cite those kind of conditions and give you an appropriate amount of time to correct them or at worst, shut down that particular site. But this funding source chose to shut down the entire program, affecting the lives of hundreds of families and forcing us to suspend 120 employees. It just doesn’t make any sense to us,” Tenorio said.

Head Start is a federally funded, county-run agency managed by the Community Action Agency of Butte, which Tenorio heads. The program, which provides day care and child development services to 662 low-income families, was suspended Sept. 23 for allegedly failing to provide adequate care. One of the main offenses cited by the San Francisco branch of the federal Agency for Children and Families (ACF) was that a child with a microcephalic condition was not wearing a protective helmet and was not under adequate supervision when he was pushed off a playground structure by another child at Table Mountain Children’s Center in Oroville.

Tenorio admits the microcephalic 4-year-old was pushed off the play structure by another tot his own age. But he added that the boy was not injured and that a proper report was made to the state licensing agency. What’s more, the child’s pediatrician had determined that the boy had no need for a helmet.

“We’re talking about behavior and play activity that we would call roughhousing, but this [federal inspection] team leader chose to use words like ‘violent.’ It’s really an odd position that we were put in,” Tenorio said. “It’s been determined that the child’s pediatrician did not want the child to be wearing a helmet.”

When teachers at the site reported the incident to the state, as they are required to do, Tenorio said, “They came out and cited us, said that we needed to make sure all the children were getting properly supervised, and then they left it alone. They see this thing all the time, and they reserve the right to close down a site if they see a potential or actual violation.”

But the federal inspection team was not satisfied. After perusing the medical files of several children, and finding some had low hemoglobin counts, they postulated that the children may have been exposed to lead.

“Anybody who is a health professional knows you never make a connection between low hemoglobin and lead poisoning,” Tenorio responded. “You can make a connection between low hemoglobin and anemia, but this just had us shaking our heads.”

Other problems found by inspectors are also unfounded, Tenorio said. For instance, it was reported that the program lacked a behavioral health specialist, when, according to the program’s official response to the suspension, the program has employed such a therapist since 2002. Previous problems found by inspectors in March, such as outdated job descriptions and organizational charts, were taken care of over the summer, Tenorio said.

The program was shut down for three days and taken over Oct. 3 by Colorado-based Community Development Institution, a nonprofit company that holds the federal contract to provide interim management for failed Head Start programs.

Calls to the ACF inspection team leader and her supervisor’s office in San Francisco were not returned by press time. A CDI spokesperson refused any comment, referring callers to an ACF public affairs specialist in Washington, D.C.

That spokesperson, Steve Barbour, also declined to comment, saying, “I’m not going to adjudicate their claim in the media.”

Tenorio said the timing of the inspection was an added stressor.

“I was also working on two major things—one was our 2006 grant application for [federal] Head Start dollars. Without that we might as well chuck it in. It was due on that Friday so the timing couldn’t have been worse.

The Bush administration has targeted the 40-year-old Head Start program for a series of so-called reforms that critics say will siphon money from the program and weaken its ability to provide early education for the 900,000 kids it serves. Currently, a bill is making its way through congress that would allow program managers to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.