Even as the state legislature is poised to adopt new regulations, the death toll is surging in Indiana day cares, raising questions about whether proposed reforms go far enough.
An Indianapolis Star investigation last year reported 21 deaths at Indiana day cares from 2009 to June 2013, and 10 more child deaths have since been reported.
Three children have died in day cares already this year, continuing a two-year pace sharply higher than in the past.
Marni Lemons, spokeswoman for the Family and Social Services Administration under which the Bureau of Child Care operates, said the agency won’t speculate on why Indiana is seeing a sharp uptick in deaths at day cares, from one in 2011 to nine in 2012 and 11 last year.
But child advocates point out that, of the 31 reported deaths, 21 occurred at unlicensed or illegal day cares, and even if proposed reforms at the Statehouse become law, most of those will remain unlicensed.
The problem, some reformers say, is that Indiana remains one of 11 states that exempts home day cares from being licensed if they take in five or fewer children unrelated to the provider. But that law likely won’t change anytime soon.
Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, author of House Bill 1036, which strengthens safety and reporting requirements at day cares that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers, said there’s been no talk of licensing more home day cares.
Even if a lawmaker were to propose such a change, Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said it would lack strong support in the General Assembly.
Michelle McCready, senior policy adviser at Child Care Aware of America, said Indiana’s law allowing unlicensed day cares to have up to five unrelated children in a home creates confusion for parents and gives an incentive for day care operators to add more children without facing inspections. Ten states license all day cares that serve more than one child unrelated to the operator.
McCready said it is not surprising that 16 of Indiana’s 31 known day care deaths were at illegally operating homes.
Two of the 16 day cares where children died were only found to be operating against the law after inquiries from The Star caused state inspectors to take notice. One of those, a Fort Wayne home discovered Wednesday, was described by the Indiana Bureau of Child Care as putting children “in imminent danger” if it remains open.
“We see this trend way too often,” McCready said. “It seems obvious this is the nature of the unlicensing. It is not too great, and no one is inspecting these facilities, the operators are not being trained in safe sleep. Operators know if they add an extra child the state is not going to check in and see if they are following the laws.”
That appears to be the situation at the Fort Wayne day care home run by Amy Auld.
Twice in 2006, complaints were filed that Auld was operating illegally, taking in too many children, according to the Bureau of Child Care. One inspection found her to have more than five unrelated children. A subsequent visit found Auld operating legally. Since Auld was found to be following the law and no further complaints were filed, inspectors were not required to return to her home.
But this year, when a 3-month-old died at Auld’s unlicensed home on Feb. 26, 13 children were present, according to attendance records found at the house. The child’s death was ruled not suspicious by police and the Allen County coroner’s office. The Indiana Department of Child Services was notified when the death happened but did not inform the Bureau of Child Care. James Wide, DCS spokesman, said Friday the death remains under investigation and no additional information was available about the reporting process.
A bureau inspector, responding to The Star’s inquiry, arrived at the home Wednesday in northwest Fort Wayne and found 11 children, including “four children under age 2 in a back room with the door closed” and four 3- and 4-year-olds “upstairs in a loft sleeping.”
The inspector noted Auld said she “lost five children” since the Feb. 26 death, meaning at least 17 children regularly attended the day care.
The bureau sent Auld a cease-and-desist letter Thursday and warned her to either become licensed or only care for five or fewer unrelated children. Officials also asked the Indiana attorney general’s office to issue an injunction to close the day care. Auld did not respond to a request for comment from The Star.
Two other children also have died this year:
Jan. 21: A 3-month-old boy died at Loni Laguire Daycare, a licensed day care home, from “asphyxia due to aspiration of solid food into larynx and trachea,” said the Tippecanoe County coroner. The death was ruled accidental.
March 4: A 17-month-old girl died from smoke inhalation from a fire at the licensed Waterman’s Wonderland Daycare in Sullivan.
Lemons said parents should be vigilant in checking on the status of their child’s day care. Because day care homes can operate without a license, Lemons said, state inspectors cannot check if they are breaking the rule unless someone raises a concern.
“If you are taking your children to a residential child care, and there are more than five children including your own,” Lemons said, “ask to see the license.”
The Bureau of Child Care confirmed the 31 deaths to The Star on Thursday. Yet state child welfare officials admit there could be more who were not identified as being injured or killed while in care at an unlicensed home or facility, which are not required to report.
Star reporter Robert King contributed to this story. Call Star reporter Eric Weddle at (317) 444-6222. Follow him on Twitter: @ericweddle.
File a day care complaint
If you have concerns about a day care, call the Indiana Bureau of Child Care, (877) 511-1144.
Deaths at day cares across Indiana
Licensed day care: includes centers and homes.
Unlicensed day care: Includes registered ministries, legally licensed exempt homes and legally licensed exempt centers. These providers are not required to report.
Illegal day cares: providers operating without a license and doing so illegally.
•2009, 2, 1, 1, 4.
•2010, 0, 1, 2, 3.
•2011, 0, 0, 1, 1.
•2012, 3, 1, 5, 9.
•2013, 3, 2, 6, 11.
•2014YTD, 2, 0, 1, 3.
•Totals, 10, 5, 16, 31.
L = Licensed day care
U= Unlicensed day care
I = Illegal day care
Cause of Death
•10 – SIDS.
•9 – Undetermined.
•2 – drowning.
•2 – pneumonia.
•2 – positional asphyxia
•2 – strangulation.
•1 – choking
•1 – diabetes.
•1 – fire.
•1 – Reyes Syndrome.
Source: Indiana Bureau of Child Care