When the child care center at Hines V.A. Hospital (above) abruptly closed in July, the shutdown was described as temporary. A week later, it became permanent, leaving employees scrambling to find other care providers. (Photo by Michael Romain)

When Eva* learned the daycare center at Edward Hines Jr. V.A. Hospital was abruptly closing, she was stunned. For many working parents at the suburban hospital, the Hines Child Care Center was a crucial resource. It was affordable compared to other daycares in the area, and it was located right on hospital grounds. 

Eva, who asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisal, said her children had attended the daycare for years and grown accustomed to bringing her children to work, visiting them during her lunch break and picking them up after her shift. Now, “pulling into the VA without my kids was just emotional in itself,” she said. 

But it wasn’t just the daycare’s sudden closure that shocked Eva and dozens of other parents who work at Hines. They also were unaware that the facility was facing structural issues and deemed unsafe for children and daycare staff. 

In a company-wide email to employees obtained by Wednesday Journal, hospital officials said “a piece of plaster ceiling” in one of the daycare rooms “came down” sometime during the night of July 14. 

“The room was empty at the time, no injuries occurred and the room was secured upon discovery,” officials said in an email sent July 16, two days after the incident. 

Hospital officials also told employees that Hines’ occupational safety, patient safety, engineering and infection control teams conducted a “comprehensive safety review” of the daycare following the incident. 

A consultant from the Midwest branch of the Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN) also inspected the child care center. Based on their findings, they decided to close the center indefinitely, officials wrote in an email. 

“We were told after the inspection of the space that they couldn’t confidently say that it wouldn’t happen in any of the other rooms and that it was like a ticking time bomb,” Eva said. 

Hines Child Care Center was located in Building 1, a roughly mile-long structure planted on the south end of the hospital’s 174-acre campus. The daycare center, which had long been part of Hines for about 40 years, was split into several different rooms to accommodate children from 6 weeks to 6 years old, said Eva and Amy, another Hines employee who requested her name not be published for privacy concerns and in fear of retaliation. It also had additional office space for staff, kid-friendly bathrooms, a large indoor playroom and an outdoor playground, Eva said. 

Eva, a longtime employee of Hines, said she did not know the daycare had any maintenance problems but knew other parts of that building did. 

In July 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Research and Development released an extensive report documenting the physical condition of 171 of its research buildings across 74 campuses. According to the report, Building 1 had numerous maintenance issues ranging from a leaky roof to vinyl asbestos floor tiles and poor heating and cooling systems. 

Inspectors also found a “severely aging” electrical distribution system and noted that “several ‘emergency situations,’” including a water main break, occurred during the assessment. At the time, they wrote Building 1, along with the entire Hines campus, was in need of “constant” maintenance. 

Though the report was published nine years ago and the building has since undergone countless repairs and renovations, Eva and other Hines employees said some of those maintenance issues have yet to be resolved. 

“I know that a lot of the offices in the building had ceiling leaks and issues like that,” Eva said. “We would put in these requests for ceiling repair or like removal of dripping water from the walls and nothing happened.” 

Matthew Moeller, a spokesperson for Hines V.A., declined to comment on the details of the safety review or describe the damages discovered in the daycare center. In an emailed statement to Wednesday Journal, Moeller wrote that the decision to close the facility was “difficult” but necessary to repair its “long-term structural” problems. Hines VA declined to participate in a formal interview.  

“Currently, there are no plans for the space after repairs are completed,” he said in the email. 

Moeller explained the Hines Child Care Center was run by a private organization. On July 23, a week after Hines administrators announced the daycare temporarily closed, the daycare’s board of directors moved to shut it down permanently.  

Eva and Amy said about 17 teachers, along with a handful of daycare staff, lost their positions. After repeated requests, Moeller declined to confirm the number of daycare staff impacted by the closure but stated that the daycare operated on a “rent-free space at our hospital” and no Hines VA hospital employees were affected.   

Moeller said a meeting was held on the same day administrators sent out the email about the daycare’s temporary shutdown. Employees were told they could file for leave to take time off work and find alternative care for their children, Moeller said. 

Eva and Amy said they were told about the daycare’s indefinite closure on a Friday afternoon. That meant they had Saturday and Sunday to figure out who could care for their children. Eva and Amy said the Hines Child Care Center was the perfect place because the rates were inexpensive and located onsite. 

Amy said parents paid roughly $280 weekly at the Hines Child Care, whereas other childcare centers cost double or triple that amount, and finding a new daycare center means adding more travel time for parents. 

Eva and Amy explained that many Hines employees are medical and healthcare professionals and unable to work from home. Some also do not have or live near other family members who can help and care for their children, they said. 

On top of that, searching for the right childcare provider takes time and trust. With the COVID-19 pandemic already shifting their children’s routines, Eva and Amy worried how this change would affect them too.  

“It was heartbreaking because you’ve formed this relationship with the staff who are taking care of your children,” Amy said. “In some cases, they see your kids more than you do just with these eight-, nine-hour days. You’re literally taking a part of someone’s family, and a lot of these kids have been here for years.” 

Eva and Amy said they wondered why it took hospital officials two days to notify them about the ceiling plaster falling, and yet their children still attended daycare on July 15, the day after the incident, up until the afternoon of July 16.    

“Here is a daycare where all of our children are, and [it’s] amazing,” Amy said. “But you’re telling me you’re only just now seeing that the ceiling is falling? You’re only just seeing that there might be an issue in this area? And, you’re only just seeing it and telling us that it’s so severe that you have to close down for good?” 

Nearly a month has passed since the Hines Child Care Center closed down, and Eva and Amy are still upset, devastated and angry. The two said they often receive company newsletters on how Hines is trying to help its employees achieve a “work-life balance,” and for a time, the daycare center was it – it was what they needed to help strike that balance. 

Now, it’s gone.   

“The biggest thing that runs through my mind is [Hines VA] constantly saying [they] hear me, but there are no real actions,” Amy said. “Maybe you hear me but you don’t care. Hines hears, but they don’t care.”

*Editor’s Note: Wednesday Journal has agreed to change the names of the employees in the story to protect their identities.