LAS CRUCES, New Mexico -- After a little girl was left behind at Kids Kountry Place in September, ABC-7 examined hundreds of pages worth of state investigations into eight Kids Kountry daycares, separately licensed, but owned by the same family.
Some of the most serious allegations: a daycare director giving medication to children without their parents' permission; an educator admitting to kissing a child on the lips; a child left outside in a van.
Locked up and left behind
"She was at the door, with her hands up, just this horrified, terrified look on her face," Dalila Torres told ABC-7 two months ago.
ABC-7's investigation into the Kids Kountry facilities began in September after a photo surfaced of a young girl locked inside Kids Kountry Place.
"One of a parent's worst nightmares is seeing your child locked in a building where you have no access," Torres said.
She told ABC-7 she called 911 after daycare employees allegedly left her young daughter alone in the building.
"There's no excuse for what happened," Karen Sowards told ABC-7 in September. "I'm not saying there's an excuse for it."
Sowards owns Kids Kountry Place and seven other daycares in the Las Cruces area: Kids Kountry Academy, Kids Kountry Campus, Kids Kountry Club, Kids Kountry Del Rey, Kids Kountry on Maese Lane, Kids Kountry Midtown and Kids Kountry Too.
30 state investigations, 800+ pages
After the incident in September, ABC-7 producer Trisha Garcia requested all the state investigations into the Kids Kountry properties from the past five years.
New Mexico's Children Youth and Families Department sent two separate PDFs with more than 800 pages containing 30 separate investigations. All the claims were substantiated or partially substantiated.
- According to a state complaint from April 2016, the director of Kids Kountry Too reportedly had a stash of medicine in her desk for 'fussy' children. That director lied about it to investigators and was unable to produce any consent forms from parents. She was ultimately fired.
- According to the documents, staffers at Kids Kountry Place left a child alone in a daycare van in October 2017.
- In August 2018, Sowards reported an employee to police after the educator admitted to kissing a child on the lips at the original Kids Kountry location on Maese Lane, according to the state. Sowards also let that employee go.
- In January 2019, a 6-year-old girl walked right out of Kids Kountry Midtown without any staffers noticing, according to the documents. She complained about being bullied after having "pooped" in her underwear.
A mother demands action
"We should be able to trust these people who are licensed by the state taking care of our children," said Shanna Tuan.
Her son Pau will be two years old in February.
"He is the light of my life," she told ABC-7. "He is everything to me."
But when Tuan arrived at Kids Kountry Del Rey to pick him up in August 2018, she said her son had an intense rash.
"We think that they must have just left him in a wet bib for hours," Tuan said. "His whole face and neck was swollen. It was horrible."
The state cited the daycare for failing to treat the child and contact his parents.
"I don't necessarily say that they need to be shut down, because that would mean people losing their jobs," Tuan said. "I know that can be horrible, but then also, our kids need to be protected."
ABC-7 attempts to seek response from the Sowards
In September, Sowards approached ABC-7's crew outside Kids Kountry Place and commented on Aurora's case.
"I'd like to tell my side of it, but I feel like you guys turn it all around," Sowards said two months ago.
"Well, we'd love to hear your side of it," said ABC-7 reporter Kate Bieri.
"Well, we've been in business 32 years and this has never happened," Sowards said.
After ABC-7 first spoke with Sowards in September, reporter Kate Bieri and Photographer Tom Scott stopped by every location across Las Cruces in attempts to reach the family for additional comment.
Karen's son Abe did reach out by phone call and text message to Kate, but despite numerous requests for an interview, Kids Kountry did not provide an on-the-record comment on this report.
The state's role in investigating
Daycares throughout the state of New Mexico are licensed by the Children Youth and Families Department.
A CYFD spokeswoman told ABC-7 that the department has faith in the safety of the children at the Kids Kountry facilities, which are all licensed separately.
"When we do receive complaints about one location, it stays with that location," Wells said. "Other locations are not affected by that particular complaint.
She said the daycares have cooperated in all the state investigations.
"We do hope that the public can find confidence in the fact that if a facility is open, it has been thoroughly investigated," said Melody Wells, the spokeswoman.
She also told ABC-7 that the state responds immediately to complaints against any facility.
"We do investigate every single report that is made to us at any childcare center," Wells said. "We do not keep facilities open that we have not visited immediately after an incident."
Wells was unable to comment on closed or open investigations because the state "is legally barred from providing any more information that what is contained in the publicly available documents," she told ABC-7.