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Editorial: Safety in Day Care

The accidental death on March 24 of a toddler at a day-care provider’s home in Enfield raises an urgent question: What more can be done to ensure the safety of children in such settings? “We don’t want to miss anything that could prevent something like this happening in the future,” said Enfield Police Chief Richard Crate Jr.

The answer isn’t obvious. Day care in the Upper Valley, as elsewhere, is scarce, and scarcely regulated. But it’s not clear that regulation or enforcement would have prevented tragedy in this case.

Four-year-old Willa Clark choked and stopped breathing when her coat got snagged on a lean-to made of branches in the yard of day-care provider Mary Ellen Burritt, who supervised a group of young children at her home on Lockehaven Road. Burritt was in the house, attending to another child at the time. She performed CPR and called an ambulance, which transported Willa to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Much has been made of the fact that Burritt’s day care was unlicensed and that state regulators issued a “cease operating” letter shortly after the incident. Burritt was not eligible for a licensing exemption because she was caring for five children to whom she was not related, according to Crate. State law allows exemptions from licensing requirements for home-based programs only if the provider cares for biologically related or adopted children, or for no more than three unrelated children. Licensed home providers in the Twin States can care for up to six children.

Providers should comply with state law. Still, a license is no guarantee of safety or quality. A Valley News examination of licensed day care centers in 2006, for example, found that 20 percent had been cited for violations in the past year. In the end, it’s up to parents to evaluate providers, which is a difficult task often fraught with anxiety. And, as Chris Pressey-Murray of the Dartmouth Child Care Project suggested to staff reporter Alex Hanson, there are quality programs that are licensed and quality programs that are exempt from licensing requirements. For all we know, there are also quality programs that operate out of compliance with the law — which tells you something about the mixed-up state of day care in this country.

The agonizing truth is that tragedy can strike whenever caregivers — including parents and grandparents — momentarily turn their attention to something or someone else. Fatalities in child care remain relatively rare, but they are more likely in home-care settings than in commercial centers, according to an investigation last year by The New Republic headlined “The Hell of American Day Care.”

If the Enfield story highlights anything, it’s the problem not of a particular provider but of provision generally. There aren’t enough high-quality facilities — a fact that separates America from countries such as France, which offers comprehensive, subsidized child care for infants and preschoolers. Caregivers exempted from licensing requirements, as well as those who, for whatever reason, choose not to apply for a license when one is required, are often the only available and affordable option for many American parents. But they operate under the radar. “It’s a big market. It’s a big black market,” said Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner for child development at the Vermont Department of Children and Families.

Anyone who provides child care for a fee ought to have requisite training and be subject to oversight. Federal regulators are considering proposals that would require greater scrutiny of unlicensed day-care providers, according to Murphy. That would be a welcome development, though nothing will eliminate all risk or prevent all fatal accidents like the one that befell Willa Clark.