ROGERS PARK — On a Friday morning last month, parents with children at Little Wonders Daycare in Rogers Park were told to come pick up their kids as soon as possible.
The reason? A lice outbreak, owner Nicole Paige Howver said.
Later, as the daycare remained closed, Howver told parents she was sick and had surgery and needed to recover for three to five weeks.
But there was no lice outbreak, parents say. Little Wonders, at 7430 N. Paulina St., was shut down by the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services for operating without a license on June 2.
In fact, Little Wonders never had a state license allowing her to run a day care in her home, a DCFS spokeswoman said — despite her repeated assurances to parents.
Howver also does not have college degrees from Loyola University Chicago, as she claimed.
In an interview this week with DNAinfo, Howver admitted that when she opened the daycare she was "young" and "not everything was perfect." But she insisted she was later given a "permit" by the state allowing her to open without full licensure.
"I was under the impression everything was on the up and up," Howver said. She added: "Everything else was completely in compliance, up to code, so my understanding of it was that everything was fine. Maybe that's where I went wrong, maybe that's my fault for not taking more initiative, but DCFS is also not easy."
DCFS said it does not issue permits short of full licensure.
Parents say the shutdown and Howver's explanations were jarring — particularly because they had trusted her to watch their children and also were generally concerned about her illness.
Howver said her life has been ruined by the situation.
"It's destroyed my life essentially," she said. "It's a lot of things to handle all at one time. ... I haven't had a chance to defend myself or speak for myself."
There are no allegations that the kids weren't well-cared for at the day care.
"The children all received quality care," she said. "... It's just really disappointing that this is what it's all spiraled into."
(Story continues below)About 19 children were enrolled at Little Wonders Daycare before the Department of Children and Family Services shut it down in early June. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]
A Daycare Without A License
Little Wonders began in the summer of 2015, originally as a temporary camp, Howver said. By the fall, Howver decided to keep the business going as a full-time daycare. In 2016, she incorporated Little Wonders Daycare LLC.
Howver, now 26, told DNAinfo she was given a "permit" by DCFS rather than a licence because her front porch was undergoing repairs. The agency said no such permit exists, and when asked multiple times, Howver could not produce documentation of the permission.
When the porch repairs were complete, Howver claimed she reached back out to DCFS to finish the licensing process, but never heard back and continued running the business without further follow-up.
Parents said she cared for as many as 19 kids, including 10 infants and employed about three staff members. Rates were $85 a day or $325 a week for full-time care, and another $30 for meals.
Catherine Game, whose 8-month-old daughter was attending the daycare, and other parents said Howver was friendly and that she would often keep the kids busy with activities, exercise, outdoor time and even animals. When the children occasionally suffered minor injuries, parents were given incident reports.
Screenshots captured from discussions on the day care's Facebook page show on multiple occasions Howver posted messages with ambitious plans for a new curriculum and upgraded DCFS licensing while she worked on continuing her education and professional development.
The women also said they had been impressed with Howver's extensive educational background, which included her telling them she was pursuing master's and doctorate degrees.
On the Little Wonders' website, Howver said she majored in social work "with a focus on children and families with a minor in ethical and moral philosophy," and added she had received "multiple graduate degrees."
She told DNAinfo she had obtained a Bachelor of Social Work from Loyola University and provided transcripts to DNAinfo indicating she had received 117 hours of credits.
But records show she was never awarded a degree from Loyola.
A relative of one of the parents was suspicious of some of Howver's claims more than a year before the daycare closed down and began digging into Howver's background.
That person shared concerns with the parent, who confronted Howver and shared the information with other families, as well. However, the mother said she was then "shamed" by other the parents for insinuating Howver might have lied.
Acting on a tip, DCFS officials visited the day care on June 2 and told Howver she needed to close immediately. Home day-cares with more than three children are required to apply for a state license, which includes submitting to a background check, fingerprinting and various home and safety inspections, as well as submitting proof of various requirements, like escape plans and immunizations.
After the day care was shut down, Howver told parents about the lice outbreak, then posted messages on Facebook saying she had been diagnosed with cancer for the second time in two years and was having emergency surgeries. She told parents she needed to recover from radiation for three to five weeks.
Concerned parents offered to help babysit kids in the day care, offered to bring her home cooked meals and said they genuinely shed heartfelt tears over the quick succession of unfortunate events.
But the parents also formed their own Facebook group, where they began cross-checking stories regarding incidents at the daycare, such as the lice scare.
None of the children had been found to have lice, they said. They also realized they had been given varying stories about her college degrees and health issues.
It wasn't until weeks later when liasons from Ald. Joe Moore's (49th) office sent an update to the parents from DCFS did the group discover that the shutdown came because of DCFS, not lice.
And, further, on June 5, when Howver told them she was recovering from a cyst removal, she had gone to DCFS and was given an application for a day care license. It's unclear whether she has submitted it in an attempt to get licensed.
Nicole Paige Howver, 26.
'It Just Tore My Faith In Humanity'
The moms said the emotional fallout from the situation has been difficult.
Parents were forced to unexpectedly take multiple days off work, as well as and hunt for new childcare.
Anne Djerai, whose now two-year-old son was in Howver's care almost since birth, cried on Howver's couch in early June after the day care provider, who she considered a close friend, detailed a list of extensive surgeries and procedures she overcame. Over the years, Djerai said Howver told her tales of being mugged, getting cancer, getting in car accidents, having pipes burst, seeing a boyfriend die of cancer and more.
Though Djerai first mourned the loss of their friendship, Djerai said she is now upset and eager to move on.
"I feel a tremendous amount of relief knowing we're done with it, and I am still really angry," she said. "I would like to see her get in trouble. She's done this to so many families, I would like to see some justice done."
According to state law, a day care operator that continues to operate without a license can be a referred to the local state's attorney for potentially violating the Illinois Child Care Act, a misdemeanor.
The agency can recommend a businesses offense be made against the daycare, which can carry fines up to $10,000. Each day of operating without a license after an operator has been told to get one would count as a separate offense.
Christy Fisher, whose two-year-old daughter attended Little Wonders for nearly a year, said her trust has been violated by the experience and she would not return to Howver's day care even if the state eventually grants her a license.
Other parents, like Game agreed, and said she was most upset by what she perceived as ongoing, intentional lies.
"I was so shaken," Game said. "It just tore my faith in humanity. It was the most unbelievable thing to happen, there's no one you want to trust more than the person you leave your child with."
Howver said she's still hoping to sort everything out.
"The quality of care at Little Wonders has always been above and beyond anything that DCFS requires," she said.
What all three parents said was their ultimate goal was to make other parents aware of the situation so it doesn't happen to them.
"I'm not trying to get her or anything like that, I just don't want any other families to have to deal with what we've dealt with," Fisher said. "This didn't have to happen like this, and we don't want any other families to be duped.
"I'm hoping honestly that she can't get another license and that she can't provide care like this in this kind of setting. I just want people to be aware of what they're getting into."
Little Wonders Daycare, 7430 N. Paulina St. in Rogers Park. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]