The state Department of Job and Family Services last week renewed the license of HappyWorks Day Care Inc. despite having issued the center a serious violation in October for failing to report that employee James Ballinger was a mentally ill convicted felon. Records show that Ballinger has a 1998 felony conviction for leading police on a high-speed chase.
"It's just wrong and outrageous and very surprising," said state Sen. Dale Miller (D-23), whose district includes the day care center on Lorain Avenue in Cleveland. "if you wouldn't revoke a license for this, well, what would you revoke it for? It sounds like a very strong case."
Police arrested Ballinger, 51, in June after a standoff and found him with four loaded handguns, two buck knives and a bullet-proof vest. Cops also found two other guns in his apartment -- located just above the day care, which his mother owns and which three dozen kids attend.
Ballinger suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and believes he's a secret agent and police were intending to take him to a mental institution because his family feared Ballinger might burn down a police station he'd been staking out, according to the police report.
Despite the state's findings, HappyWorks administrator Lisa Janik today denied not conducting a background check on Ballinger. "We did background checks on all of our employees," she said before slamming the door.
Job and Family Services spokesman Ben Johnson said the offense did not rise to the level of a license revocation, which is taken in only the most serious cases. Short of that, he said, the state could only require HappyWorks to file a corrective action plan for approval.
It cannot issue fines or penalties to day care centers, he said.
"Revocation is about the only discipline we have," Johnson said. "There's not really a middle ground."
Billie Osborne-Fears, executive director of Starting Point, an early education referral agency, said the state should have a wider array of sanctions to deal with day care centers that fail to conduct criminal background checks or allow weapons into their facility.
"Ohio Department of Job and Family Services needs to have authority to sanction those programs and I think that the only way that is going to occur is if our state legislators grant that," said Osborne-Fears, who advocates for strict background checks. "It's frightening to me. I think that this would be a situation that gets some attention."
Miller, who is leaving the state senate after winning election to the new Cuyahoga County council, said he plans to pursue changes to the system even after he makes the transition.
"If there's things that need to be changed in the law so that their hands are no longer tied, well they should tell us what those things are and we should introduce appropriate legislation," Miller said.