ORLANDO, Fla. - An Eyewitness News investigation has uncovered dozens of people with dangerous and violent criminal pasts working at local, licensed day care centers.
It's something parents WFTV spoke with never imagined could happen. What’s even more shocking is that the state is allowing it, according to Channel 9’s Kenneth Craig.
Craig reports it's the state's way of giving criminals a second chance.
Tonique Brown's years of run-ins with the law are captured in one mug shot after another. She's been arrested at least six times in the last 14 years, once for throwing a brick through a car window and others for grand theft, burglary and battery.
Despite a dangerous and violent past, the 32-year-old is now running Kidz at Play, a licensed day care in Orlando, and WFTV learned the state knows all about it.
“It sounds awful when we throw out charges like that. That's absolutely the reaction,” said Carrie Hoeppner of the Department of Children and Families.
Since 2009, WFTV uncovered an "official exemptions list." The DCF has issued 509 "exemptions" to Florida day care workers who claim they've turned their lives around, but whose crimes would normally disqualify them from ever being around children.
Twenty of those exemptions came from Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, where not a single parent WFTV spoke with had ever heard of the waiver.
“It's upsetting, it really is,” said parent Jennifer Petro. “I just think it's appalling."
Brown slammed the door when Craig showed up to talk to her.
The same happened at Little Miracles, where owner Audrey Thornton, a convicted drug trafficker, works, and at Ingram’s Academy, where Billie Scott works. Scott was found guilty of aggravated battery on a police officer.
All of the day cares is licensed, but none are required to tell parents upfront about their employees' criminal pasts, leaving parents with no way of knowing who's really watching their children.
When asked if the day care licenses creates a false sense of security, Hoeppner said, “I think that it could be."
“When an individual receives an exemption, it's still not a guarantee that they will continue to make good choices,” Hoeppner said.
The DCF said it won't issue an exemption unless it's certain the person has been rehabilitated.
And while the state is still issuing exemptions, WFTV found the number has gone down significantly in the last year.