Increase sought in checking day care But some say more inspections won't improve safety

June 26, 1998|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The deaths of two babies at a Stevensville day care home has put a spotlight on the state's system of regulating child care facilities, and is prompting differing opinions on the best way to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Dawn Denny, the mother of one of the victims, called this week for increased inspections of day care homes. Del. Wheeler R. Baker, an Eastern Shore Democrat, has said he is concerned that inadequate funds might be limiting inspections.

But state regulators say more inspections aren't necessarily the answer.

"I don't know that that would make [day care homes] safer," said Linda M. Heisner, executive director of Child Care Administration for the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

"I would rather those resources be put into training to improve the quality and skills of the individuals providing the care, and not just to police them more often," she said.

Maryland is regarded as a state with some of the nation's most stringent and comprehensive rules governing child care facilities.

State authorities and national child care advocates say they are not sure what the state could have done differently to prevent the kind of accident that left Ian Walden Denny of Stevensville and Matthew Willis Harrison dead.

The infants, both almost 6 months old, apparently suffocated accidentally after they were put down for a nap May 13 with a soft, fluffy blanket not meant to be used for children, according to information law enforcement authorities gave the parents.

The day care provider, Stacey Russum, voluntarily surrendered her license pending the outcome of an investigation, which remains open.

The state inspects day care homes every two years, as their licenses come up for renewal. To get a license, a day care provider has to attend an orientation program, take nine hours of child health and development classes, undergo a criminal background check and medical examination, among other requirements.

Maryland had 14,441 licensed day care providers as of February, Heisner said. That includes 12,186 day care homes, and 2,255 child care centers that serve larger groups and are inspected yearly.

Heisner noted an inspection is only a snapshot in time, adding families are a good check on the daily operations of day care homes. "Parents are in the best position to see things and call us if they have a concern," she said. "Frequently they are the ones who do call us. We investigated 2,332 complaints in the last fiscal year."

The agency does unannounced inspections when it gets a complaint. A serious violation can lead to an immediate suspension; less serious ones to a conference with regulators and an agreement to correct deficiencies.

Heisner said her agency took 327 enforcement actions -- VTC including 36 emergency suspensions, 86 license revocations and "conference agreements" -- in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 1997.

The agency operates with a staff of 170 people in 13 regional offices and had a budget of about $7 million a year, she said.

Maryland gets high marks from national groups that monitor the child day care regulation and enforcement practices of states.

The just-released July/August issue of WorkingMother magazine named Maryland one of the Top 10 states in the nation on that score. Similarly, Good Housekeeping magazine in June rated Maryland one of the nation's best in requiring child care providers to meet health and safety standards.

"The regulations they've written are comprehensive, and they have a very good mechanism for monitoring the centers and homes," said Kay L. Hollestelle, executive director of the Washington-based Children's Foundation, an advocacy group.

"They are more strict than many other states," she said.

Like Heisner, Hollestelle said increasing the number of inspections of day care centers will not necessarily make them safer.

"Any facility, whether it is a home, a center or whatever is only as good, obviously, as the day you go in and inspect it," Hollestelle said. "It doesn't mean that it isn't going to change 24 hours later."

Maryland's regulations governing family home day care providers say children should have an "age-appropriate resting space" -- defining that as individual cribs for children age 18 months or younger.

DHR officials said Russum's home had cribs when her license was approved in November 1997 to operate in Queen Anne's County. She had been licensed since 1988 in Dorchester County.

However, the infants who died were reported to have been napping together on an adult bed rather than in the cribs.

Russum's attorney, Harry M. Walsh Jr., said she did nothing wrong.

"While there may have been cribs in the house, I don't believe she violated any rules, regulations or common practices of child care providers by having the children on the bed," Walsh said.

The Child Care Administration's rules are so detailed and complicated that they are "almost impossible to follow to the letter," he said.

"They are there to prevent lawsuits [against the state agency] as much as to protect children, and I don't think they are reflective of what is practicable in the day-to-day rearing of children," Walsh said.

Walsh said no one disagrees the deaths of the two children were accidental, but that it is not clear that the cause was accidental suffocation.

"I do not have any definitive evidence that suffocation was the cause, and I, in fact, have my doubts that suffocation was the cause," Walsh said.

Pub Date: 6/26/98

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