INDIANAPOLIS — A Marion County stepmom is raising concerns about a Lawrence child care facility after uncovering they have never been licensed.
Records show the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration also expressed concerns about the Spanish Advantage Club, 9615 E. 59th St.
On Dec. 20, 2021, FSSA alleged TSAC was operating illegally and issued a cease-and-desist letter to the facility saying they were caring for 57 children without a license.
In Indiana, a licensed child care center or home has to follow a slew of regulations including background checks for staff, safe sleep and CPR training for staff, as well as follow specific child to staff ratios to ensure there’s enough teachers for the number of children.
The Spanish Advantage Club, also known as “TSAC,” has been open since 2015. Elizabeth Isonhood runs the dual-language education business with her husband and six children, according to their website.
They offer preschool for children as young as three, as well as after-school child care, summer and spring break camps, as well as transportation, according to their website.
“My step kids, they were enrolled before I moved here,” said Melissa Wells.
Wells said her stepdaughter attended after school care, and her stepson attended full day child care.
"When I first started going there, it just seemed sort of off,” said Wells.
Wells said there seemed to be a lot of kids, but not many staff members present.
An incident with her stepson also gave her pause.
“He was sent home with no underwear, no pull-up, and in clothes that didn't belong to him,” said Wells.
Wells said she talked to TSAC the next morning and they didn't have any answers.
“That definitely rubbed me the wrong way and really made me want to pursue more of this gut instinct of — if this is a school, if this is a daycare facility, what does it have to be?” said Wells. “There's got to be rules, regulations, standards."
Wells did some research, and was shocked to learn the Spanish Advantage Club is not a school nor is it a licensed childcare facility.
"I have not been able to find a single license,” said Wells.
Wells said her husband filed a complaint at the beginning of December with the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, the state agency that licenses and inspects childcare facilities.
What Wells didn’t know is that FSSA has received a total of three complaints from different individuals about the Spanish Advantage Club since the summer of 2021.
FSSA inspected the Spanish Advantage Club on July 29, 2021.
Records show an FSSA licensing consultant observed 57 children from 4-12 years of age.
The operators told the FSSA consultant “they care for children Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m through 6:00 p.m.,” records show.
On Dec. 20, after Wells’ complaint, the state issued a letter saying, “you must cease and desist operating your unlicensed and unregistered child care facility.”
The state also said the Spanish Advantage Club meets the definition of a child care center or ministry because of their hours and days of operation, and because they’re a “regularly paid provider.”
The Spanish Advantage Club is one of 20 providers currently on the state’s “Illegally Operating Providers” website, which means the provider has been issued at least one cease and desist letter for operating illegally.
WRTV Investigates asked Child Care Answers, a resource and referral agency that serves several Indiana counties, to weigh in on what it means to be licensed.
“A background check, that would be required of a licensed facility,” said Mollie Smith, executive director at Child Care Answers. “An unlicensed facility does not have to have those in place.”
Licensed facilities also have to follow specific child to staff ratios, which are based on the age of the children.
For example, in a licensed center you must have one teacher for every four infants.
Licensed centers and homes are required to have their staff attend annual safety training.
"As far as CPR and First Aid, licensed facilities are required to have that for their teachers as well,” said Smith. “We know things can happen with little ones like choking. There's a variety of things they can get themselves into and we need to know the adults in the room can react and that's required every year."
According to FSSA, the Spanish Advantage Club has never been licensed.
The first time they applied for full licensure was Jan. 28, 2022 — the day after WRTV Investigates contacted TSAC to ask for their response to the cease-and-desist letter.
The Spanish Advantage Club is currently operating under an exemption in Indiana law, the same one that many camps and half-day preschools use.
It all comes down to hours and days of operation, according to Child Care Answers.
"So it would be that I could operate my program Monday through Friday and then the next week I'd operate Monday through Thursday and then close on Friday,” said Smith. “Also, if you only operate for four hours a day. You don't operate from 6 am to 6 pm, I only operate from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. So I'm not required to be licensed, that's an exempt program."
The operators of the Spanish Advantage Club did not agree to meet with us in person or virtually despite our repeated requests, so we showed up to the facility.
In the lobby, we saw a sign they closed Friday, Feb. 11.
No one from TSAC came out to talk to us or asked us to leave.
Two officers from the Lawrence Police Department showed up while WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney and a photographer were standing at the edge of the parking lot.
“They don’t want you on their property, and they’re asking you guys to leave,” said the officer.
After that encounter, WRTV got an email from the Spanish Advantage Club’s co-operator Elizabeth Isonhood.
“I think it is important for you to know that not a single parent has ever complained or had any issues with their children in the past seven years since I opened my facility,” said Isonhood in an email to WRTV. “I am a double minority business owner that started with nothing and has made it through so much over the past two years. I started as a school teacher with tutoring children after school out of my home. I am proud of what I have built with my family in our diverse area and also of what I do and what I have done throughout my years as a teacher and for our community of Lawrence.”
Isonhood has not yet answered emailed questions from WRTV, and said she was consulting an attorney before answering.
“The service my family provides has helped hundreds if not thousands of parents and their children, and they are all very grateful to me,” said Isonhood. “We have given back to our families and always have given scholarships to everyone one of our military, law enforcement and teachers that send their children to our facility. It is heartbreaking that someone would want to make a story out of something that has no story at all.”
FSSA says they made follow up visits to the facility in August and December and continue to visit regularly.
FSSA is reviewing the Spanish Advantage Club’s application to become licensed.
“We are committed to working with providers, as we are with this particular provider, to help ensure safe and quality child care for our youngest Hoosiers,” read a statement from FSSA.
Melissa Wells says her stepchildren have not attended the Spanish Advantage Club since December.
“My kiddos are at least out of that situation,” said Wells. “Now it's absolutely looking out for other kids."
She says parents should do their research and ask to see a facility’s license.
“Trust, but verify,” said Wells.
HOW TO CHECK A CHILD CARE FACILITY
- Don’t just rely on recommendations from social media when choosing childcare.
- Plug in a provider's name to ChildCareFinder.IN.gov and look for complaints, inspection reports, and any pending enforcement.
- Check the state’s list of providers who’ve been cited for operating illegally.
- Use your eyes and ears when visiting. Are they following safe sleep? Is equipment working? Are children strapped into their high chairs?
- Drop by the child's day care unexpectedly during the day. What is seen at pickup and drop off may be very different than what's happening during the middle of the day.
- Ask to see the provider's license or registration, which should be posted in a public area. If the provider is on probation, it will say so on the license, along with the reasons why.
- Ask to see a copy of the day care's discipline policy. Corporal punishment is not illegal in the state of Indiana.
- Ask what their current child-to-staff ratio is. Experts say accidents are more likely to happen when staffers are watching a lot of children.
- Ask if the provider is part of the state's voluntary rating system, called Paths to Quality. The state said this helps guarantee they're meeting and/or exceeding licensing requirements regardless of type of day care.
- If you use an unlicensed facility, know they do not have to submit to background checks, CPR training, safe sleep training and other requirements. Ask to see proof your provider has completed these.
- If you’re looking for child care, you can call the Child Care Answers State Hotline (1-800-272-2937) or call 317-636-5727, which can help you find licensed homes, centers and registered ministries that meet your financial needs.
Child Care Answers says the biggest mistake parents make when choosing child care is basing their decision off of what the facility looks like.
“A clean and healthy environment is so important but there's so much more to it,” said Smith. “When you go into an environment, are the adults interacting with the children. Are they down on their level? Are there things put in place for safety when you walk in the door? You also want to ask about the education of the teachers. What does that look like, and are they required to do professional development?"