Babies smacked, slapped, knocked over at Delaware day care, then director lied to parents about state’s investigation

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The Bellevue Learning Center north of Wilmington entices prospective parents with the promise that their pre-school children would be welcomed into “a family-like atmosphere where each child can grow emotionally, academically, and physically.”

The facility, part of the Bellevue Community Center, boasts on its website that it has a  “5 Star” rating, the highest status awarded by the state Department of Education, and a place where “teachers and staff members make an effort to know your child.”

What the website doesn’t tell parents is that the center — which charged $1,100 a month to care for children under age 1 — was put on probation in May by the Delaware Office of Child Care Licensing for endangering babies with improper discipline, inappropriate care, and safe sleep violations, or that other investigations this year found that caregivers twice left an older child alone on the playground for several minutes.

The state’s initial investigation, which started with several complaints in February, found dozens of violations, including slapping, smacking, and knocking over babies — actions captured on the center’s surveillance system.

After that probe was concluded, the state cited Bellevue for lying to parents about the state’s finding of mass mistreatment of babies. The deception occurred when then-community center director Joe Wisniewski assured Bellevue’s “awesome’’ parents in a letter that “none of the infants in our care were endangered.” 

The state also ordered Bellevue to stop caring for children under age 1, but Bellevue told parents it had made “the difficult decision” on its own. Bellevue, whose brick exterior wall is covered with a huge mural featuring sunflowers, is still licensed to care for up to 200 children from age 2 through school age.

In addition to the licensing violations, a police investigation that began with the complaints in February led to the arrest of a former teacher in July for second-degree child abuse, a felony punishable by up to two years in prison.

And while Bellevue’s website and two signs outside the center off Philadelphia Pike tout its status as a Delaware “5 Stars” program, the state no longer uses the rating system. The state halted its Delaware Stars program in the fall of 2021, said Alison May of the Department of Education.

Bellevue’s front door touts its status as a “5 Star” center but the state discontinued the rating system two years ago. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Three parents are now suing the center in Delaware Superior Court for negligence, assault and battery, and conspiracy “to actively suppress and conceal the abuse and neglect.”

Jen Sheldon, whose son had been in the center for eight months when she learned about the slew of violations, is one the parents suing Bellevue.

“He was a baby, but I expected that he was being nurtured and held and fed and taken care of while I was away from him,’’ said Sheldon, who contacted WHYY News this month about the treatment infants were subjected to at Bellevue. “That’s kind of the least that you would expect when it comes to a baby. Going forward, I think the goal is to make sure that this gets enough attention so that it doesn’t happen again.”

  • November 9, 2023
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