Grief spurs mothers to action Infant sons' deaths in day care center put parents on mission

June 25, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

STEVENSVILLE -- Dawn Denny doesn't care how many people she has to talk to, how many interviews she grants, how many times she stops for photographers or video cameras.

Six weeks ago, her infant son, Ian, and another baby, Matthew Harrison, died at a Kent Island day care home. Since then, she has mounted a self-described "mission" to tighten the rules governing home day care centers.

Investigators have told her they believe the two children were accidentally suffocated by blankets during an afternoon nap. But the state medical examiner has not determined a cause of death.

Elaine Harrison, Matthew's mother, has a project of her own -- organizing a child-safety day that will offer information on everything from boating safety to CPR classes to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The event, held in cooperation with the Kent Island volunteer fire department, is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 15. The mothers are calling it "Our Darling Angels Day."

Both women say that their efforts also might provide a way to break through overwhelming sorrow and find meaning amid tragedy.

"This is hard, harder than you can imagine, but life has to go on," Denny said. "This was a terrible accident, but I'm going to push hard to increase inspections of day care homes. As it is now, there are strict rules for getting a license, but no follow-up. Parents need to feel safe when they place their kids in day care."

Day care provider Stacey Russum has voluntarily surrendered her license pending the outcome of the investigation. Her attorney, Harry M. Walsh Jr. of Easton, said yesterday his client has done nothing wrong.

"If you spend five minutes with the Russum family, you know they couldn't have done anything wrong. This is an accident," Walsh said.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the zeal and energy shown by the two mothers is not uncommon, according to national and regional groups that help parents deal with the death of a child. They point to Mothers Against Drunk Driving as an obvious example of heartbroken parents confronting grief with positive action.

"None of us can deal with the fact that a child has been yanked out of our lives," said Diana Cunningham, executive director of The Compassionate Friends, a support group with nearly 6,000 chapters nationwide. "Parents often feel they need to do something because no one can tolerate the sense that there was no meaning in their child's life."

It is the group's Queen Anne's County chapter that has brought Denny and Harrison together in recent weeks.

"My whole life as I knew it has been ripped apart," said Harrison. "There's no psychologist there, just people who know what you feel because they've been there. One member lost a daughter 14 years ago. He's able to be there to tell us that life can become normal again."

Lynette Regan's 4-year-old son, Brian, was hit by a car 20 years ago. She is a leader of The Compassionate Friends group near her Towson home. Her most important function, she says, is to be a role model for newly grieving parents.

"It's always a pat answer for someone to say 'I know what you're feeling' because, of course, no one does unless they've experienced it," Reagan said. "We're there to provide reassurance that things do get better. My son died 20 years ago. I'm not still grieving."

Gina Clements, a television graphic designer who lives in Silver Spring, helped turn back her grief by producing a 13-minute video about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome that is shown to day care providers around the country. Her 7-week-old son, Zachary, died in 1983.

She applauds Harrison and Denny for quickly looking outside themselves.

"I decided that I needed to do something if I could that would make a difference," Clements said. "I saw myself in this film. It definitely was a part of the healing process."

Denny, who has not returned to her job as a financial assistant at Anne Arundel Hospital Center and has stayed home with her 4-year-old daughter Rheanne, has taken her cause to elected officials such as Del. Wheeler R. Baker, an Eastern Shore Democrat.

Yesterday she spent the better part of the day granting newspaper and television interviews.

She plans to continue speaking out.

"This is about losing a part of yourself," Denny said. "I want to stop focusing on who might have been at fault and go on to making changes so this can never happen to someone else."

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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