Before it lost its license early last year, a residential day-care center in northern Durham had compiled a lengthy list of violations that included keeping exotic animals in areas that weren't secure.
Run from a home in a pleasant suburban neighborhood, the Ann T. Roberts Day Care Home relinquished its day-care provider license in January 2005 after visits by an investigator turned up 19 violations of child-care regulations, state records show.
That same day-care center is now under new scrutiny. Durham County issued a rare public health alert this week, saying children who spent time at the center since 2003 may have been exposed to a rare dangerous disease. And the state Department of Health and Human Services has launched a new investigation to determine whether Roberts, who ran the operation legally for more than five years before giving up her license, has continued running a day care illegally. Roberts denies doing so.
County officials fear children at the day care may have been exposed to a rare infection called baylisascaris -- also known as raccoon roundworm -- which is found in raccoon feces. The Roberts family keeps several exotic animals -- including one related to a raccoon -- in a warmed gazebo in its backyard.
Roberts has repeatedly insisted this week that the children were always kept away from the animals, but reports by the state Division of Child Development suggest otherwise. On two visits early last year, investigators found, among other things, that a wallaby and a Patagonian cavy -- which is like a large guinea pig -- roamed the backyard and tried to get into the nearby child-care room when the door to that room opened. Further, children were allowed to pet both animals when they played in that part of the yard, the report states.
In another report, an investigator wrote that the exotic animals were "not safely secured in areas not accessible to the children in care."
Also, a 2-month-old infant was left unattended for the entirety of the investigator's nearly three-hour visit; the investigator only learned of the child's existence when her father picked her up, the report states.
On Thursday, Roberts disputed most of those findings. She said her doors are always locked, the investigator knew about the infant and even discussed her during the visit, and she insisted that kids and animals never had contact.
"The kids are nowhere near the animals," she said. "I have always known that is a line you never cross."
Roberts also disputes the report's findings that dangerous equipment such as lawn mowers, power tools and nails were found near children, as were hazardous cleaning supplies such as hair spray and a bottle of Raid. According to the report, the kitchen sink was covered with ants, carpeting was dirty, and animal feces were visible on the screened-in porch and throughout the fenced-off backyard.
"There was an overall unpleasant odor throughout the entire house," the report states.
Lisa Poteet is familiar with unpleasant odors. At first, she thought the stink was coming from her young son's diaper. Upon further inspection, she realized the shoes her son Carlos wore to Roberts' day care were coated with animal feces.
Poteet, an administrative assistant at Duke University, found the Roberts day care through a link on the university Web site and now regrets placing her son there for five months in 2004.
Though uncomfortable with the day-care situation, Poteet didn't remove Carlos for good until she and Roberts had an argument over a red scrape the boy had on his chin. It wasn't until much later that Poteet realized just how many concerns she had with the situation at the day care.
"When things happen one by one and you're a kind of insecure first-time mom ... you give the benefit of the doubt," she said.
Staff writer Eric Ferreri can be reached at 956-2415 or firstname.lastname@example.org.