updated 3/13/2007 9:44:15 PM ET 2007-03-14T01:44:15

The state is investigating a day care center that disciplined a 5-year-old boy by spraying a vinegar-water solution in his mouth, although one official acknowledges such practices were once accepted.

"We did a lot of things differently 15 or 20 years ago," said Emily Perrine, the Tennessee Department of Human Services' day care licensing supervisor for Hamilton County.

Kids Stop Day Care owner Elaine Torbett said Tuesday that an employee sprayed the vinegar-water mix in the boy's mouth after he "spit in another little girl's face several times."

The youngster was never restrained in any way and did not get sick from the spray, she said.

An anonymous complaint filed with the state March 5 prompted the investigation, records show.

Kay Cook, the center worker who used the spray, was employed less than a year and has since quit, Torbett said. Cook could not be reached by telephone for comment.

State human services spokeswoman Michelle Mowery Johnson issued a statement Tuesday confirming the investigation.

"Spraying vinegar in a child's mouth is a means of physical punishment, therefore it is not acceptable," the statement said.

But Perrine said use of vinegar spray or touching a child's tongue with a cotton swab dipped in mouthwash was once considered acceptable and "common practice."

Torbett said she has never allowed the vinegar punishment at the suburban center she has operated for 17 years and limits discipline to time-outs.

Torbett said the parents of the 5-year-old boy continued to send their children to the center for several days after they were told of the spraying but wouldn't accept her apologies. After a financial disagreement, they now use other day care, she said.

Perrine said the investigation would likely lead to specialized training for the Kids Stop staff, which cares for about 74 infants and young children.

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