State warns of illegal sites for child care Operations exist despite Maryland's strict regulations

'A serious problem'

Officials report difficulty in catching offenders

September 08, 1998|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The things that Veronica Walsh told parents about her day care businesses weren't always true. She wasn't licensed to watch other people's children, for instance, even though she claimed to be in her advertisements.

But the thing Walsh didn't tell parents scared them the most: Her husband, whom she sometimes left alone with the children in her care, had a criminal record for child abuse.

Hers is an extreme case, state officials say, but it illustrates the risk when parents choose an unlicensed day care provider to watch after their children.

As Maryland's regulations for licensed day care homes have evolved into some of the most stringent in the country, the number of illegal operations has swollen perhaps into the thousands, according to state officials. Licensed providers say they are being burdened by the bureaucracy more than ever, while the illegal ones -- and the potential risks they pose for parents and children -- are becoming more common and harder to catch.

"The practice is so clandestine it's very difficult to get a finger on how widespread it is," said Elyn Garrett Jones, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources. "But it's a serious problem that parents need to know about."

The state agency began a radio and television campaign this summer to encourage parents to find licensed, registered day care.

A license is no guarantee of a child's safety, they acknowledge. A licensed operator in Queen Anne's County was indicted on charges of manslaughter and reckless endangerment last week after two infants suffocated and died under a quilt in her home.

But unlike illegal day care homes, Maryland's licensed operators subject themselves to fire and safety inspections, medical examinations, periodic training and criminal background checks for every adult in their home. The list of requirements covers everything from water temperature in the sinks to the types of towels in the bathroom.

Hanna Pacholczyk, a 58-year-old Howard County woman who has been licensed for 21 years, said the regulations have become more detailed and complicated. She has to child-proof her kitchen drawers and cabinets, for instance, even though the children in her house never leave the basement.

Losing business

Her enrollment is the lowest it's been since she moved to Howard County 13 years ago, something she blames on the unlicensed homes that take away business.

Still, she says she's never thought of shirking the regulations.

"If you decide to provide day care, it should be done legally," she said. "Everything is done to protect the children, and it's not that difficult."

Sometimes investigators find illegal day care homes the hard way. A fire in a home in Parkville last summer injured six children being cared for illegally. But in most cases, investigators wait for complaints from the public.

The Child Care Administration, responsible for licensing and monitoring all day care centers in the state, has 100 full-time licensing specialists. Most of their time is spent conducting routine inspections.

Of the 14,500 day care facilities licensed in Maryland, about 12,200 are in-home facilities that must be inspected every two years. The rest are large centers that are inspected once a year. Besides those regular inspections, the administration investigates about 2,500 annual complaints and conducts surprise inspections of facilities with past troubles.

"We owe it to the registered day care providers to be as aggressive as possible to investigate illegal child care," said John Graybill, a retired Baltimore City police officer who serves as the head of enforcement for the state agency.

"But the most we can do is fine them $1,000. And the reality of it is, they're not easy to find."

Walsh's operations were uncovered in the typical way: Acting on a complaint, investigators parked outside her home and watched children go in and out. Then they talked to the parents and pieced together a case.

Fined twice

Walsh, 44, has been fined twice for running and advertising an illegal home day care operation. Records in Baltimore County District Court show she operated two between 1990 and 1995, first in Carney and later in Cockeysville. Her husband, Daniel Walsh, 48, sometimes watched the children alone for short periods, according to the records.

In 1986, four years before Mrs. Walsh is known to have entered the day care business, Mr. Walsh was found guilty of child abuse for performing a sex act on a 3-year-old girl -- a crime that Mrs. Walsh witnessed and reported to police, according to records in Baltimore County Circuit Court. The verdict was stricken and he was given probation before judgment, and ordered to undergo counseling for two years. The couple separated about that time, but resumed their relationship before early 1990, according to the court records.

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