The Coos Bay Children’s Academy nearly escaped investigation and punitive fines for poisoning fifty people had it not been for investigative reporting by the state’s largest newspaper. Due to horrendous mismanagement, state authorities did not discover a serious incident involving the use of strong pesticides in the childcare center that put employees and several children in harm’s way.

Since a careless spraying incident took place in April, at least fifty people have come forward with symptoms of illness due to exposure to a potent chemical insecticide in the childcare facility. Forty-three children and seven adults have all complained of trouble breathing and eye irritation, and it has been confirmed that sixteen of these children required medical attention for their symptoms. If all the accounts of illness are verified, they stand to become the state’s most extensive pesticide incident to take place in a school or daycare facility.

Childcare Facility Negligence Goes Undetected

Thanks to top reporting by The Oregonian/ OregonLive, state officials learned about the spraying of potent chemicals in the 9,000-square foot facility, located about three hours northwest of Medford. Oregon’s Department of Agriculture, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Health Authority and Pesticide Analytical and Response Center all launched investigations after reading about the incident in the newspaper.

In their effort to tackle a flea problem, owner Elizabeth Ewing and her husband, Gerald Ewing, purchased and applied a strong insecticide that was not approved for use inside of schools or childcare facilities to three-fourths of the square footage of the building. They sprayed the product directly on the carpet where young children played daily.

Not long after, parents witnessed their children suffering from a variety of symptoms. Some children had tonsils “the size of marbles,” eye discharge, sore throats, and some coughed until they vomited. Concerned employees had reported the issues and were upset at the state’s slow response. They warned parents against the wishes of Elizabeth “Betty” Ewing, who wanted to keep the incident under wraps.

In her defense, Mrs. Ewing claimed that the Coos Bay Grange Co-Op sold her the wrong item. Barry Robino, the CEO of the Grange Co-Op chain, disputed this claim. He later made a statement implying that consumers are responsible for following manufacturer instructions when using the products sold at their stores.

Unfortunately, time (and a professional carpet cleaning) significantly diminished the potency of the chemicals used when state agents arrived to take samples. Upon the conclusion of the state’s investigation, the Oregon Department of Agriculture determined that the day care improperly applied the insecticide and that the application caused children and adult employees to fall ill. They found no evidence of gross negligence or willful misconduct and fined the day care and the owners each $814, totaling $1628 in fines. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration found four workplace safety violations which resulted in $720 worth of fines.

The Coos Bay Children’s Academy voluntarily shut down after a stream of concerned parents pulled their children away. Several employees also left due to safety concerns. The Academy would have escaped investigation by the state and the financial penalties had it not been for the newsroom’s reporting. They closed before the Office of Child Care, Oregon’s day care regulator, could conclude their own investigation.

Holes in State Network

The fact that the state’s most relevant agencies failed to uncover this incident draws attention to significant flaws in the state’s handling of such issues. Although Coos County knew about the incident, the county’s health department failed to alert the Oregon Health Authority because the administrator didn’t know who to contact.

Florence Pourtal-Stevens told The Oregonian/ OregonLive in May that “it was probably someone’s job to investigate the incident.” Due to her incompetence, the Pesticide Analytical and Response Center could not promptly obtain chemical samples. Although the insecticide application took place on April 29th, state investigators did not collect samples until almost a full month later. There was no way to tell what levels the children and employees were exposed to immediately after the Ewings sprayed the building.

Before the spraying incident, the Coos Bay Children’s Academy had been reported to the Office of Child Care for other complaints. The day care’s office manager, Tabitha Inman, who had two of her own children enrolled for care, had called the Office of Child Care about other problems. State records indicate that the day care violated rules by failing to provide enough food for the children, not having enough employees on staff, failing to fix a playground hazard, and leaving children unattended. The center also violated disciplinary rules when an employee threatened to lay a hand on a child.

It’s so important to thoroughly investigate where to leave your children during the day. While laws are in place to protect vulnerable children, the government cannot always be trusted to effectively enforce these laws. It is during these troubling moments where it makes sense to speak with an experienced attorney to fight for your cause.  

Learn more about issues impacting safety, well-being, and justice at rizklaw.com. To schedule a confidential appointment to discuss a claim with an attorney, call (503) 245-5677 or email info@rizklaw.com.