Local early childcare educator Lia Grippo has watched a day at Arroyo Burro Beach manifest into a Department of Social Services nightmare.
Grippo, a mother of two and accomplished outdoor educator in Santa Barbara County, had her childcare license suspended by the DSS on July 8, following investigation of an incident at Arroyo Burro Beach (formally Hendry’s Beach): On June 15, several children in her care climbed a cliff adjacent to the beachfront in beach attire, with the exception of one child who was nude. Although no one was injured, the incident was interpreted by several bystanders below as reckless conduct and subsequently reported to the DSS, which found the incident indicative of conduct that is “inimical to the health, welfare, morals or safety” of the ten children in her care that day. Five months and two DSS hearings later, Grippo’s license remains suspended, pending her testimony next Monday, November 24.
At a time when parents are encouraged to allot sufficient outdoor activity for their children, Grippo said she has been stripped of her childcare license for hosting a program which embodies outdoor exploration. “I think that there is a growing trend toward risk aversion in our society that has really gone over the edge,” Grippo said. “We live in a time that both our children and ourselves must be as safe as possible, rather than as safe as necessary.” According to the allegations by the DSS, Grippo violated the personal rights of children in her care by “not providing adequate care and supervision” to three children while they were “climbing a cliff approximately 125 feet high while naked or partially clothed.” Additionally, the DSS allegation states that Grippo allowed children in her care to be “expos[ed] to natural hazards (cliffs and ocean fronts), thereby placing the daycare children in substantial danger.” Grippo claims the children climbing-two of them her own and one the child of a close friend-are avid climbers who had scaled the beachside cliff before.
The incident occurred while Grippo led the first day of a Wild Roots Nature Education Program session, her entirely outdoor-based program for children ages 2 through 7. The program-which introduces children to the outdoors through exploration at a young age-is offered over the summer as an auxiliary service to Grippo’s DSS licensed, indoor childcare program, Seedlings. Included in Grippo’s charges, the DSS investigation-executed by Kevin Kielas of Community Care Licensing-claims Grippo’s outdoor program Wild Roots is synonymous with Seeds, the childcare program in her home. Additionally, the accusations exert that Grippo was operating an unlicensed program, employed an unscreened aide, and that she endangered the well-being of children in her care.
Lizelda Lopez, Public Information Officer for the Community Care Licensing Division of the DSS, said the department will continue to seek the revocation of Grippo’s license in spite of the appeal. “What happened could have killed these children, so we take this very seriously,” Lopez said. “That’s why we are seeking the revocation: she failed to protect these children from the potential of becoming seriously hurt.” Currently, there are 50,000 licensed childcare facilities in the state. The DSS only pursues revocation against only one percent of these facilities on average per year. “It is not our goal to shut these programs down,” Lopez said. “It’s our goal to make sure that our children are in safe environments.”
Key to this case is the DSS’s aligning of Grippo’s Wild Roots program to her home daycare center. Currently, the DSS only licenses preschools and daycares that are based in homes or facilities, Grippo said, not camps or outdoor programs which operate exclusively outdoors. In the preamble of the accusation, the DSS says that Grippo was operating a program that falls under the category of a “family child care home” and is therefore subject to Title 22 regulations and guidelines. However, the Wild Roots program is based outdoors, raising the question of whether or not the program is indeed subject to the California Child Day Care Facilities Act and Title 22. “I have searched for a number of years and there still is no licensing for programs based completely outdoors,” Grippo said. “You can get insurance for them however, which would be difficult if they were illegal.” Grippo said that although she has a strong case against the accusations, the DSS can still choose not to honor the judge’s decision from the hearing and could continue to suspend her license.
While Grippo strongly disagrees with the DSS suspension, she does concede that she was wrong to allow Maria Witcher to work in her programs without a criminal record clearance. Witcher, whose child was in the Wild Roots program June 15, was slated to work for only two days in the summer and for personal reasons had put off getting fingerprinted, Grippo said. She added that this charge normally results in a fine for first time offenders, very rarely a full revocation of one’s teaching license.
Working in childcare for over two decades, Grippo has fashioned her career by emphasizing exploration of nature in her programming for children. “When we keep children from testing their own abilities at a young age, I think we are doing them a great disservice,” Grippo said. “Our culture has become so litigious: children aren’t being allowed to get muddy, climb boulders, or play in the creek.” Before the incident, Grippo owned and operated three childcare programs: Seedlings, a pre-kindergarten program based in her home as well as in the local woods, Acorns and Oaks, a parent/child wilderness program offered over the summer, and Wild Roots, an entirely outdoor child daycare program.
Grippo’s appeal of the revocation of her license was not completed at the initial November 3-4 hearings. The second phase of the hearings-which will focus mainly on Grippo’s testimony-will be held on Monday, November 23 at 9:30 a.m. at 360 South Hope Ave, Building B in Santa Barbara and is open to the public.