I-TEAM: Deaths at licensed KS day cares happen almost exclusively at in-home providers

In-home safety regulations lag behind centers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When parents drop their kids off at day care they expect, at a minimum, their children will be safe.

Most of the time they are.   

But in Kansas, state records show children who attend licensed in-home day cares are fatally injured much more often than kids at day care centers.

The 41 Action News Investigators examined state records from the past 10 years that show 40 children have died at licensed day cares in Kansas.

Deaths at licensed Kansas day cares:

2007 - 2011

2012 - 2017

Thirty-eight of those children died at in-home day cares.

Caleb's Story

Misty Durham wanted her son, Caleb, to go to a licensed day care. She also wanted Caleb to be cared for by a mother in a home setting. 

“When I woke up that morning and got Caleb ready for day care,” Durham said, “I would never have fathomed that day would’ve ended up like it did.”

In February 2013, Durham was working as a manager at Walmart.

While she was at work, she selected a licensed in-home day care provider in Topeka, Kansas to care for her 5-month-old son.

Durham had just returned from her lunch break when she got a phone call.

“I was getting a phone call that my son was unresponsive and that I needed to get to the hospital,” Durham said. “The only thing I knew at that time was that I needed prayers -- and I needed them quick.”

When Durham arrived at the hospital she found several nurses and doctors standing over her baby boy trying to get him to breathe. Caleb had gone several minutes without any oxygen.

“I was able to hold his hand for about 45 minutes,” Durham said.

Caleb died at the hospital.

“There’s nothing like looking in the eyes of your child and he’s not there,” Durham said.

Preventable Tragedies

The Shawnee County Sheriff's Office report shows Caleb’s day care provider left Caleb in the care of someone else the day he died. That person, according to the report, laid Caleb down for a nap in a dog bed, where he suffocated.

“This wasn’t a simple accident,” Durham said.

The 41 Action News Investigators discovered that many of the 40 daycare deaths in Kansas were preventable.

Strangulation, drowning and blunt-force injuries are just some of the ways those children died, according to state records.

Paula Neth, with the Family Conservancy, a group that helps provide child care resources to families, said the deaths that occur at in-home day cares are likely the result of one thing.

“Supervision is critical,” Neth said. “When you're in a family day care situation you have one adult typically unless they have an assistant. You have one adult for maybe up to ten children of different age groups. How are we making sure that children are in sight and sound at all times?"

Bryce's Story

Christina Williams’s 5-month-old son, Bryce, is also on that list.

“It’s been six years,” Williams said. “I can still close my eyes and I can see him laying on that table.”

In August 2011, Williams was ending her shift at work when she got a phone call from a detective who told her Bryce had choked at his in-home day care in Wichita, Kansas.

Williams rushed to the hospital.

“We run inside and the hallway is just lined with hospital staff,” Williams said. “No one would look me in the eye.”

Williams said Bryce’s father was already in a waiting room when she got there.

“He said, ‘They won’t let me see him’ and a chaplain walked in with my doctor,” said Williams.

Bryce was pronounced dead.

“Bryce had really dark blue eyes,” Williams said. “The one thing I really remember was the color of his eyes had changed -- they were a light ice blue.”

While the state lists Bryce’s cause of death as SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome, Williams said that’s not true.

“She didn't check on him for almost two hours. She put him on a doubled-over blue Pokémon sleeping bag on his face,” Williams said.

Safety Regulations Lag 

The 41 Action News Investigators reached out to Lori Steelman, the Child Care Licensing Director for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, to find out why children are dying at in-home day cares more often than at daycare centers. Steelman declined to be interviewed. Instead, a spokesperson emailed this statement:

As far as child care deaths, the rate of occurrence is too low to speculate/make conclusions based off the data provided to you. Due to this reason we will have to decline your request for an interview.

The Investigators also wanted to talk with KDHE about day care regulations. The agency wouldn’t discuss that either. Instead, a spokesperson told us to read the manuals.  

When reading through the more than 200 pages, the 41 Action News investigators discovered some disparities in safety regulations between in-home day cares and day care centers.

In a home, children over the age of 2-and-a-half are allowed to play unsupervised. The day care provider doesn’t even have to be in the same room with the children.

Also, in-home day cares are not required to have a fenced-in outdoor play area.

Last year, a toddler was killed at an Olathe, Kansas day care when she was hit by a truck while playing in the driveway.

The 41 Action News investigators asked KDHE why in-home day cares are not required to follow basic safety requirements.

Matt Keith, Communications Director for KDHE, issued this statement:

“We take the safety of every child extremely seriously. All of the regulations of child care facilities are designed to provide safety, but ultimately the most important aspect of safety that we encourage and enforce is attentive supervision. There is no substitute for this.”

Keeping Your Kids Safe

More than 40,000 children attend in-home day cares in Kansas.

Neth, of the Family Conservancy, said parents often prefer a homelike setting.

Most of the time, it provides a safe and comfortable place for parents to take their children. 

Regardless of the type of day care parents choose, Neth suggests they do unannounced drop-in visits.

“If you're walking through and you see that the adults aren't interacting with the children -- the children are kind of left or children are wandering -- that would be a red flag with me that the teachers aren't really that engaged with the children,” Neth said.

Parents can also check out their provider’s inspection reports online for the past three years. Missouri also posts its inspection reports online.

Above all else, when selecting a day care provider, Neth said parents should trust their instincts.

“I tell parents all the time, go with your gut, you know your child, you know what's important to you, so trust your gut,” Neth said.

Both Williams and Durham said they felt like something wasn’t quite right with their day care providers. 

Durham’s son, Caleb, was on a wait list to get into another daycare.

Caleb was supposed to start attending a new day care just three days after he died.

Williams also said that she and Bryce’s father were talking about switching providers.

The providers were not criminally charged. 

“I have doubt every day,” Williams said. “It’s hard not to because I look back and I saw signs.”

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