She had a howling 4-month-old girl strapped to her in an Eddie Bauer carrier while the eight other children she was responsible for watching—all under the age of 3—scrambled underfoot.

Her co-worker at WeVillage day care in the Pearl District on May 4 couldn't help her. She was too busy corralling 12 preschool children—ages 3, 4 and 5—around an art project.

"It was constant crisis mode," Bergstrom says.

It might also have been illegal. Oregon law requires child care facilities to obey strict staffing ratios to ensure children's safety. Under the rules, there should have been at least four teachers onsite, not two, based on Bergstrom's description.

But Bergstrom—who quit along with three co-workers two weeks ago—says the frantic scene at WeVillage that day was often the rule, not the exception. She said the center faces chronic understaffing.

"Children were neglected," says Bergstrom, 27, herself the mother of two boys, 2 and 3, "and weren't getting their needs met."

WeVillage's owner and founder, Karen Beninati, denies Bergstrom's allegations, calling them fabrications by a disgruntled ex-employee. "They're unfounded," she says. "We're a growing company, always trying to do the right thing."

But the problems underscore the challenges faced by WeVillage and other "drop-in" child care centers aimed at parents who have unusual work schedules, need only occasional child care services or just want to squeeze in a quick workout without a toddler in tow.

The business model can be a tricky one for a day care center to manage. While her customers' schedules are flexible, her employees' schedules are less so. That can make it difficult to predict how many workers a day care center might need at any given time.

State records show Bergstrom's allegations are not isolated. The Pearl location of WeVillage, which targets high-end customers, has a track record of compliance problems since it opened in 2009, according to Oregon's Office of Child Care. 

Beninati tells WW that the state should grant her day care center "grace periods" when kids are coming and going and the center is temporarily out of compliance. 

"Because the model is flexible," she says, "we're not a normal center."

Bobbie Weber, a faculty research associate at the Family Policy Program at Oregon State University's College of Public Health and Human Science, says there's a reason the state enforces low staffing ratios in day care centers.

"The most important thing in a child's development is how responsive adults are to the child," Weber says, adding that day care workers who are stretched too thin are apt to ignore a child who is crying or needing a new diaper. "A parent should be very worried if centers are out of compliance on staffing."

As a company, WeVillage has been expanding. In addition to the Pearl, it has locations at Hillsboro's Orenco Station and in Happy Valley, with a fourth planned for Northeast Portland in July. 

The company has also been the subject of largely flattering profiles, including a January story in the Portland Business Journal and another two weeks later in The Oregonian. "We are doing a different model," Beninati told The Oregonian, "and it's about educating [state regulators] to work with us, versus against us."

Both stories reported the state had received six complaints about WeVillage's Pearl District location. But that's far from the whole story.

State records show that WeVillage has eight cases in which inspectors either substantiated complaints or found the center in the Pearl out of compliance.



WW

On two occasions in 2014, an inspector found Beninati's dog at the Pearl location in contact with children—in one case, the shih tzu, Chewy, was nipping at a child. "He was used as a therapy animal," she says. "He hasn't been onsite in a very long time."

An inspector in August 2014 found 22 children onsite with only two teachers. One was busy at the front desk while the other had not been enrolled in the state's central background registry.

The inspector also heard Beninati use foul language in front of children. "I observed the director use profanity five separate times during my visit," the inspector wrote. "She was holding children on her lap or in her arms each time she swore.” 

Beninati says she was talking to the inspector. "We were having a conversation," she says. "I'm not saying that was the best choice."

In December 2014, a state inspector on an unannounced visit to the Pearl location found three staff members, including one who didn't meet state qualifications to teach, supervising 25 children, six of whom were under the age of 3. Under state rules, WeVillage should have had at least one more qualified teacher onsite. Beninati showed up 15 minutes after the inspector arrived, bringing the center back into compliance, but the state fined the center $500.

Beninati says she has upgraded her reservations software since then. "We've improved business practices," she says.

In all, since May 2014, the state has cited the center for 15 violations. (Since 2009, the state has issued an average of 500 violations per year statewide. As of this year, there are 1,144 child care centers in Oregon.)

Beninati says WeVillage's record is not a fair picture of the service the centers provide to children and parents. 

"We're doing the best we can," Beninati says. "We have so many wonderful things going on."

Last week, WW spoke with three former WeVillage employees who shared stories similar to Bergstrom's but declined to speak on the record. Only Bergstrom agreed to allow her name to be used in this story. She said she filed a new complaint against WeVillage the day after she quit.

Aimee Craig, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Education, which oversees the Office of Child Care, says the state cannot disclose or discuss complaints until an investigation is complete.

Bergstrom says she would never allow her own boys to stay at WeVillage without her. That's why she wanted to speak out.

“Children don’t have a voice,” she says, “so we have to be the voice for them.”