Locked-in toddler sparks probe of day care center

Girl, 3, apparently left behind by employees at end of day Friday

October 08, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

A Northeast Baltimore day care center is facing a state investigation after employees apparently left a 3-year-old girl locked in the dark, empty nursery school on Friday afternoon and went home for the weekend.

Staff at the Harford Heights Nursery Center in the 3800 block of Hamilton Ave. apparently failed to notice that Takira Harris was still in the building at the end of the day.

The girl's father, Earl Harris, 29, said he was 10 minutes late picking up his daughter, and when he arrived at Harford Heights, the building was locked. Assuming his wife, Tasha, or another relative had arrived before him and picked up the little girl, Harris said he was not immediately worried.

When he called Tasha Harris at her job, however, his wife was horrified.

"You couldn't imagine how I felt at the time, not knowing where our daughter was," said Tasha Harris, 28. "And then come to find out, she was in there, by herself, in the dark."

Harris found his daughter after he had called police, when a friend in Harris' car spotted Takira peeking timidly around the corner of the building. When the friend called out to her, Harris said, the frightened preschooler ran and hid.

No one is sure how Takira ended up outdoors.

"She found her way to an emergency door somehow," the girl's mother said. "That must've been her guardian angel."

When Earl Harris spotted his daughter, he said, he jumped a chain-link fence into the nursery school yard and grabbed the sobbing little girl.

She had been alone for nearly an hour, her parents said. David F. Vorel of Ellicott City, who owns the center with his wife, Helen, said they are trying to determine what happened Friday.

"We are investigating the matter," Vorel said, "and doing everything we can to make sure it never happens again."

Elyn Jones, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees the day care licensing and regulatory Child Care Administration, said that agency also is investigating the incident.

Baltimore police who arrived at the nursery school Friday afternoon have turned the case over to the city's Child Protective Services.

Earl Harris said yesterday that he was not able to get an explanation from the nursery school of how his daughter was left behind. He said the center's employees told him yesterday that it is the responsibility of the center's director to do a final "walk-through" of the building, checking to make sure all children are accounted for. But, Harris said, the director told him she often alternates that responsibility with the staff members and had asked one of them to do it.

"They just keep passing the blame," he said.

The center's director, Cynthia Knowles, declined comment.

David Vorel said that when his investigation is complete, "we will take the appropriate disciplinary actions."

In the meantime, the Harrises said, someone should take responsibility for their daughter's traumatizing afternoon.

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