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Safari Childcare lawsuit accuses DCFS employees of harassment

Sarah Nader - snader@shawmedia.com
Safari Childcare, Inc. in McHenry closed after a DCFS investigation found the staff didn't have the means to run the daycare and improperly kept children's medical records. Now owner, James Ourth, has filed a lawsuit against the DCFS investigators.
Sarah Nader - snader@shawmedia.com Safari Childcare, Inc. in McHenry closed after a DCFS investigation found the staff didn't have the means to run the daycare and improperly kept children's medical records. Now owner, James Ourth, has filed a lawsuit against the DCFS investigators.

McHENRY – The owner of a local day-care chain is suing Illinois Department of Children and Family Services employees for intentionally working to shut down five of the business’ day-care centers, according to the lawsuit.

James Ourth, owner of Safari Childcare Inc., filed the lawsuit in federal court Dec. 13 and named more than 20 DCFS employees he said harassed and destroyed the business in retaliation of a confrontation involving Safari and multiple, unnamed political figures.

Five Safari locations have already been closed, and Ourth fears DCFS will seek to shut down the remaining centers in Hanover Park and Mount Prospect. Ourth is asking the judge for a declaration that DCFS’ conduct was a violation of the day care’s constitutional rights and enter an injunction barring the department from continuing to harass the day care chain. The lawsuit asks for unspecified money damages.

DCFS representatives said they would not comment on ongoing litigation.

Safari’s former McHenry center, 2214 W. Route 120, closed abruptly in May 2015 after a DCFS investigation.

A license compliance tracking report from DCFS at the time showed the McHenry facility had been at the center of complaints since January 2011. There had been more than a dozen complaints the day care center violated state rules regarding class sizes and staffing. Staff was not equipped to properly discipline children and did not keep proper medical records for children, according to violations noted before the closing of the McHenry center.

The center’s staff also was accused of not immediately reporting two instances of suspected child abuse or neglect, and allowing a child believed to have scabies to participate in daily activities.

Ourth’s attorney, Sara Garber, did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking a comment over the holidays.

Ourth has owned and run day care centers in Illinois since 1991 and in 2006, renamed his business to Safari Childcare Inc., according to the lawsuit.

From 2006 to 2014 Safari ran multiple day care centers, including locations at Mount Prospect, Palatine, Cary, Bensenville, Streamwood, McHenry, Highland Park, East Dundee, Hanover Park and Belvidere.

The trouble began in 2010 when Safari began to experience problems with DCFS checks and noticed delays in licensing and other applications, Ourth wrote in the suit.

In the spring of 2010, Safari Childcare submitted initial licensing applications to run day cares in Streamwood, McHenry and Highland Park. At that time they also submitted an application to allow one of the Mount Prospect day cares on Algonquin Road to include night and weekend care.

Ourth stated in the lawsuit that DCFS refused to process and approve the applications in a timely manner, causing delays that stopped Safari from opening and expanding as scheduled.

Throughout 2011 and 2012, Ourth scheduled meetings with DCFS administrators and directors. When the administrators “were not supportive,” Ourth began contacting local political representatives and state senators, who Ourth said participated in multiple meetings with DCFS and Safari, according to the lawsuit. He did not name the politicians involved.

Ourth states in the suit that after an April 2012 meeting in which Ourth and political representatives confronted DCFS administrators about their alleged mishandling of day care licensing and regulation, DCFS began intentionally trying to shut down Safari day care facilities in retaliation by using state daycare policies in unfair and illegal ways.

Ourth accused DCFS of first purposefully delaying permits, licensing and renewal visits and then increasing the number of unannounced checks on the centers.

He also claimed the department repeatedly reported Safari for not cooperating with “minuscule, vague provisions,” and then didn’t offer clear, corrective plans.

From July 2013 to May 2015 Safari received five notices from DCFS stating the department’s wouldn’t renew licensing for five of Safari’s day care centers, all within 18 months of one another, according to the lawsuit.

The business was “effectively destroyed in less than two years” when centers were continually shut down, the lawsuit states. Safari’s Highland Park center was closed in June 2015; Palatine’s October 2016; Belvidere’s in January 2017; and Bensenville’s in April 2017.

“The closure of five Safari locations combined with the delays and financial costs associated with complying with [DCFS’] targeted, irrational and unlawful administrative enforcement actions, created a domino effect with regard to the other Safari locations. ...” Garber wrote in the lawsuit.

The suit is up for a status hearing Feb. 14 at the Illinois Northern District Court’s Chicago office.

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