Oregon regulators suspected trouble at a fancy home day care in Southeast Portland.
Initially, they were working off a tip. Someone reported that children, most of them under the age of 3, were left unsupervised in the center's basement for hours at a time.
Officials also had reason to believe children were being deprived of food as a form of punishment.
Then someone snapped a photo.
It showed a 1-year-old tied up and confined to a crib. The child’s arms were bound to their body with a blanket. An adult tried to free the infant — who was reportedly in distress — but needed a full two minutes to undo the knots.
Armed with this information, regulators with the state’s Office of Child Care felt the children who attended Sunnyside Sprouts day care — located in a classic Portland-style Craftsman and offering organic food, sign language and yoga classes and elaborate field trips — were in imminent danger.
So regulators shut the day care down. But they didn’t immediately tell the parents why.
Some parents continued to place their children in the care of the owner, Melinda Hagen. They didn’t know the state considered their child care provider dangerous. They wouldn’t until parents started their own investigative work, asking questions and filing records requests.
For parents, the mistakes made at Sunnyside Sprouts offer a case study in the frightening reality of Oregon’s system for overseeing child care providers — and protecting small children. Regulators lack the power to adequately police the state’s day cares. And they lack the tools to communicate with parents when they do find problems.
Parents Left In The Lurch
On the evening of May 8, Dan Holmes, a manager at a technology company in downtown Portland, was doing dishes when he got a call — not from the state — but from his child care provider, Melinda 'Mimi' Hagen.
Hagen told Holmes that it was a hard call to make, but that school had been closed.
“Why have you suspended school?” Holmes asked.
Hagen explained how things had gone sour with a new employee who abruptly quit, Holmes said later. She told him she made a bad hire. She assured Holmes she would be back up and running soon.
“To illustrate how much trust we had put in her, our immediate reaction was ‘Well, this is awful for you,’” Holmes said.
Two days after the state issued an emergency suspension, shuttering Sunnyside Sprouts, they put a form letter to all the parents in the mail.
The letter, which starts, “Dear Parent,” offers few details. It alerts the parents the day care was suspended and that such suspensions are lifted when the issues are resolved.
It tells parents the state doesn't take suspensions lightly, and that if they need help finding day care arrangements, they can call 211 toll free.
Hagen offered to help some parents with interim care. Many families were stuck in a tough situation; day care spots can be very hard to find in Portland. They also believed Hagen’s explanation for why the day care was closed. They had no reason to believe she was lying to them and they hadn’t heard anything to contradict her side.
With few options, some parents took Hagen up on her offer to provide temporary care at one of their homes. In doing so, they continued to potentially put their children in harm’s way — even while the state had information showing Hagen could hurt them.
Holmes said he’s struggling with his own guilt after putting his young daughter in a potentially dangerous situation.
He thought he was making the right choice when he signed her up at Sunnyside Sprouts.
"We did not set out looking for an in home child care situation," Holmes said. "We took comfort in more eyeballs. We took comfort in more structure. But this thing came up and we were like, ‘This seems crunchy and Portland and feels like something that lines up what we want for our kid.’"
And although he feels responsible for his child’s well-being, he also feels betrayed by the state.
"Where have you guys been? Why am I getting a form letter in the mail? Why haven't you called us? When did this start? What is your actual purpose?" he said, listing questions he still has of state regulators.
In an interview, Holmes kept circling back to one central question: Why did the state let the person whose business they were shutting down contact the parents to alert them?
Dawn Woods, the state’s child care director, said she doesn’t have an answer.
“That’s a great point,” Woods said during an interview with OPB. “And I have staff sitting here nodding their heads like, ‘Yes, we’ve been working toward transparency, and we have more to do.’”
After a series of stories in The Oregonian last summer, which showed the state agency struggles to oversee child care facilities and poses an "elevated risk for major incidents of child harm," state officials said they would improve.
The Oregonian/OregonLive first reported the problems at Sunnyside Sprouts.
The state’s Office of Child Care is charged with regulating about 4,200 day cares statewide that serve more than 100,000 children.
Sunnyside Sprouts' History
The state’s suspension order against Melinda Hagen, the woman who owns Sunnyside Sprouts, illuminates a troubling past.
Hagen had been operating illegally in the state for years, according to interviews with parents and state documents. Many parents were never aware their child care center — which cost $1,740 a month for five days a week of coverage — was unlicensed. Child care providers should have their license posted somewhere in the facility so parents can see it, according to state officials.
In November 2017, again operating on a tip, the state confirmed that Hagen was offering unlicensed care. Hagen formally went through the licensing process and within 10 days was licensed by the state. Parents were never notified of the problem or the fix.
Hagen also had gotten in trouble with regulators in California. Before Sunnyside Sprouts, she operated a home day care for several years in San Diego. California shut that business down in April 2005.
Officials found in 2004 that Hagen had been asleep in bed with her boyfriend when she should have been caring for three children under the age of 3, records show. Hagen’s other violations in California included operating over capacity and without the proper ratio of child care providers to adults, according to California state records.
Oregon regulators said they did not know Hagen's business had been shut down by regulators in California.
Woods said it’s “tricky” for Oregon officials to track a child care provider’s history when they come from another state.
Many of the parents found Hagen’s day care through word-of-mouth referrals. Her values seemed to align with their own.
Hagen loaded the kids into her 15 passenger van — marked with vanity license plate “SPROUT” — for field trips, such as one outing to the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival in Woodburn.
The center's website touts a “creative and positive environment [to help] develop a positive self-image.”
Parents felt they had done their due diligence. They toured Sunnyside Sprouts and interviewed Hagen. Some checked the state’s safety portal, and found that Sunnyside Sprouts didn’t appear to have any complaints against it. They assumed this was because she hasn't received any citations — not because she wasn’t licensed. It was not evident she was operating illegally and without being subject to regular state inspections.
Many of Hagen’s clients were first-time parents trying to navigate a system in which child care providers enjoy much of the leverage. In the state’s current child care climate, where demand outweighs supply, parents that ask too many questions can get turned away.
On a recent afternoon, the former home of Sunnyside Sprouts had a “for rent” sign in the front lawn.
Hagen was moving boxes into two U-Hauls parked out front. When asked if she would speak to OPB, she responded, “I have nothing to say to you.” Then she walked inside her house and closed the door.