Attorney general sues to vacate day care on Youngstown's South Side for lead concerns

Dust samples collected during a 2017 inspection had lead levels nearly six to nine times higher than the EPA limit. The tenant began operating a day care there this year. But the lead was never properly removed, according to state records.

YOUNGSTOWN — New court action from the Ohio attorney general alleges a South Side home currently being used as an around-the-clock day care is riddled with lead contamination.

The day care’s operator, Aletha Temple, who rents from the home from its owner Brian Benson, claims Benson never told her about its lead problems — problems which have gone unaddressed for years, according to state records. Someone even removed signs placed at the home by ODH indicating its lead dangers, according to the lawsuit.

Benson claimed he's removed the home's lead-based paint, but can't prove it to the state. Temple said she's now looking for a new home.

A permanent injunction filed Friday in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court by Attorney General Dave Yost, on behalf of the Ohio Department of Health, would force Benson, of Trussit Avenue in Youngstown, and any tenants to vacate the home until the lead can be properly removed and prohibit the home from being used as a child care facility until it passes a safety check.

It went unchecked for years

Benson, through his company BSA Construction LLC of Youngstown, purchased the East Judson Avenue property in 2009 for $10,000, according to Mahoning County Auditor records. It was built in 1928 and remodeled in 1979, records show. It’s currently valued at less than $10,500.

Benson has known about its lead problems since at least 2017, according to the attorney general’s office. A child who lived at the home in January of that year tested above the limit for lead poisoning in the blood, prompting a lead-based paint inspection and risk assessment report by ODH that following June, according to the civil complaint.

Inspectors found several spots inside and outside the home where lead-based paint was deteriorating, that report showed. Seven of 10 dust samples taken inside the home had lead levels far above Environmental Protection Agency limits: 360 micrograms of lead on one part of the living room floor, for which the limit is 40 micrograms; and 1,430 micrograms on one of the living room’s interior window sills, for which the limit is 250 micrograms.

There is no “safe” level of lead exposure, according to ODH. Lead can irreversibly harm a developing child’s nervous system, cause permanent brain damage that can impact behavior or learning and, in some cases, even contribute to death.

ODH in October 2017 ordered Benson to control the lead hazards at the East Judson home. The department sent follow-up letters months later, but never got a reply. The department ultimately ordered him to vacate the property in July 2018, for failure to comply, and barred the home from being used as a residence, child care facility or school.

State health workers placed warning placards at the property stating the home was under an order to vacate and that its lead hazards made it “unsafe for human occupation especially for children under 6 years of age and pregnant women,” reads the complaint. But someone removed those signs at least three separate times, causing ODH personnel to replace them.

Temple told Mahoning Matters it was Benson.

State health workers then learned in September 2021 that Temple was living in the East Judson home and operating it as a day care. A sanitarian who visited the property the following November found the lead hazard sign had again been removed.

‘My kids come first’

Temple, 53, has run Big Mama Love Childcare LLC since 2017. She said she moved into the East Judson home in March, and later moved her day care business there.

She said it wasn’t until after she moved in that she began noticing all the little ways the East Judson home was run down, including the old windows. Then she saw one of the lead hazard signs state health workers placed at the property and she started asking questions.

“‘It’s all right. I did all the work,’” she said he told her.

When contacted by ODH in September, Temple said Benson never told her about the state’s lead hazard order, according to the civil complaint.

She told Mahoning Matters Monday she wouldn’t have moved into the East Judson home had she known. She also admitted she removed one of the lead hazard signs herself, “because that’s embarrassing.”

Temple cares for at most six children at a time, the maximum number allowed under her license. She said she’s told their parents about the lead issues.

They told her, “We trust you. … We know this is not your fault,” she said, adding, “They love me.”

As of Tuesday, the children have stopped coming to the home, Temple said. She's suspended the day care until the lead issue is resolved — "My kids come first," she said.

Benson, who spoke to Mahoning Matters by phone Monday, said he doesn’t recall providing Temple a lead disclosure form before she moved into the home in March. Those forms are used to tell renters or homebuyers if there are any known lead-based paint hazards in a home, and they're required by federal law for all houses built before 1978, according to the EPA. Temple said she never got one.

Temple has maintained her Ohio child care license since July 2017. Ohio Department of Job and Family Services inspections of her various facilities between March 2019 and March 2021 returned only a few minor violations, all of which were immediately addressed, records show.

A July 2021 inspection of the East Judson home noted Temple’s facility didn't comply with eight of 78 total inspection standards — most of the instances were low-risk, and all were addressed that same day — but that it complied with the “sanitary environment” rule.

Job and Family Services’ inspection manual includes an appendix of possible “moderate” or “serious” violations for inspectors to check for at child care facilities, but the presence of lead isn’t one of them.

Cleaning up

It’s unclear whether the East Judson house is still as dangerous as reported in the 2017 inspection.

Benson claimed he never had an issue with lead at the home prior to 2017 and blamed the reported lead poisoning that year on that tenant’s previous home just up the street.

After that tenant moved out, the East Judson house sat vacant for years, Benson said. He claimed he began removing the lead himself in 2019 and finished in 2020. “I had to go in there and scrape and paint everything,” he said — but he couldn’t prove the work had actually been done, when asked by Mahoning Matters.

Moreover, under lead control laws, Benson was supposed to hire a specialized, lead-licensed contractor to ensure the work was done properly. Under the rules for federal lead control grants, administered in Mahoning County by Healthy Homes & Lead Hazard Control, work done by an unlicensed contractor doesn’t count.

Benson told Mahoning Matters he was unaware of that rule.

After he completed his own lead removal work, he claimed city health workers gave him approval to reopen the home — that’s when he had Temple move in. Benson said he was puzzled to later find another state health department sticker on the door.

City Health Commissioner Erin Bishop couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.

“The house is in great shape,” Benson told Mahoning Matters. “I just don’t want [anybody] to go through this problem. Right now, the house is in good shape. I don’t see [anything] wrong with the house at all.”

‘This is about my livelihood’

Temple broke down in tears when talking to Mahoning Matters by phone Monday about the potential court order that could force her to find somewhere else to live and disconnect her from her sole source of income in the day care.

“This is about my livelihood. This is all I got. This is my passion,” Temple said through sobs. “My kids love me and I love my kids.”

Temple’s been looking for a new home since learning of the lead issues. But finding a home in Youngstown has been proving difficult, she said.

“I’ve been trying to work with realtors. I’ve been trying to look around online, trying to find houses,” she said “I can’t stop. … This is the only income I got.”

Benson on Monday said Healthy Homes is currently reviewing Temple’s eligibility for a lead removal grant. But the process takes time. He said Tuesday he thinks he's found a lead-licensed contractor for the work.

That agency offers federally funded grants for up to $10,000 for licensed lead removal work, which often involves window replacements. Any remaining cost for that work would come from the homeowner.

Once the licensed contractor finishes the work, homeowners can then file for a clearance inspection through Healthy Homes. The home would then be re-sampled for the presence of lead, and could be deemed “lead-safe” and reopened.

The attorney general’s lawsuit is being handled by county court Judge Maureen Sweeney. The court issued civil summonses Monday, but Benson said Tuesday he had yet to receive one.

An ODH spokesperson declined to comment on the pending lawsuit Monday.