‘It’s a crisis’: North Port daycare abuse allegations shed light on childcare shortage in Sarasota County

Child abuse allegations against a North Port daycare are shedding light on the shortage of childcare facilities in Sarasota County.

Evelyn Jennings, a now fired teacher from Building Blocks Children’s Center, sits in jail facing one count of cruelty toward a child stemming from an incident that left a little boy covered in bruises earlier this month. Her boss, the director of the daycare, Cindy Desrosiers, faces three counts of failure to report suspected child abuse as a mandatory reporter.

The North Port Police Department said Jennings had been fired from other daycares and has been investigated by the Department of Children and Families before.

Booking photo for Evelyn Jennings. 

"Whenever allegations like this come forward, your heart just sinks," said Ana McClendon, the director of community outreach and engagement at the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County.

"Your heart sinks to your stomach and to be honest, whether you’re a parent or not, the allegations, they are really hard to digest," she said.

McClendon said the non-profit is helping families, who were on financial assistance, whose children went to Building Blocks Children’s Center find other childcare. She said there’s a real lack of childcare facilities in the area.

Booking photo for Cindy Desrosiers. 

"It’s a crisis, and I think that’s not a secret. I’m not telling anyone a secret," McClendon said. "Whether you’re a business owner or a parent or work at the Coalition or even in human services in Sarasota County, the entire nation descended on Sarasota County in the last three years, so we’ve had population growth."

"We’ve had teachers leave the field from birth to 21. Teachers of all levels have left the field, so there’s a teacher crisis and that is in part with the lack of centers, let’s say or the need for more centers for our growing population, that coupled with teacher recruitment and retention that leads to a mess," she said.

McClendon said there are about 155 licensed childcare facilities in Sarasota County. Just a couple of years ago that number was 175, and there were more than 200 facilities in the county within the past decade, she said.

The Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County is now helping families from Building Blocks Children's Center find new childcare options. This comes after two Building Blocks employees were arrested after child abuse allegations began surfacing. 

"You want young people to move here and to work here. If they have nowhere for their babies to go, they can’t stay here, so it’s getting pretty serious, and we’re trying to combat it," she said.

McClendon said they’re rallying the community together to host a business breakfast soon to discuss the issue and work on plans to fix the shortage.

She said the non-profit is available to help all families in Sarasota for free navigate finding childcare.

"Parents have to work. Children need to be in a safe place, and you hope that you’re making the right decision," she said.

Photo of Building Blocks Children's Center. Two of the daycare's employees were arrested on charges related to child abuse. 

Police said they believe there are more incidents that haven't been reported yet, and they're compiling a list of all of the allegations against the daycare. Police said both Jennings and Desrosiers could face more charges.

"You've got to use your gut sometimes," Josh Taylor, the public information officer for NPPD, said. "You've got to have a feeling. You got to go into a place and kind of just think this is comfortable for me and my family. You know, the problem is, is there is a shortage of these types of facilities for kids. North Port has the largest number of school age kids in the county, over ten, 12,000, and there's not a whole lot of options."

DCF is also looking into the center, and said information regarding investigation is confidential. The Florida Department of Health is in charge of licenses for childcare facilities in Sarasota County and hasn’t gotten back to us. Neither has Building Blocks Children’s Center. 

To contact the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County, you can call (941) 954-4830 Ext. 106 or email Info@elcsarasota.org.