One of the most difficult and important decisions parents ever will make is choosing a day-care provider, health officials say.
Christopher and Kimberly Taylor offered to give their baby's day-care provider a new playpen they weren't using.
They never got the chance.
Their daughter Hannah Grace, four days shy of 6 months, choked to death one morning last year after poking her head through a hole in the playpen in which Angela Bird had placed her.
It's a grim reminder of the importance of decisions parents make about child care.
Douglas County District Judge Michael Malone recently sentenced Bird, the Taylor's day-care provider, to 24 months on probation during an emotional hearing that moved many in the courtroom to tears.
The Taylors told Malone that Hannah's death was no accident in their eyes. They also said that they had offered to give Bird, who pleaded guilty to a charge of child endangerment, a new playpen but that she had refused it.
The parents say they never saw the defective playpen. During a visit to Bird's home, Bird showed them a different playpen, they say.
The Taylors said in an interview Wednesday they did everything they thought they could to ensure their child would be safe, including drop-in visits. Kimberly Taylor said she and her husband had a false sense of security because Bird was on a list of registered day-care providers.
"It's very hard to foresee things like this happening," she said.
The Taylors questioned themselves about what they could have done to prevent Hannah's death, but they feel they made every effort to see that their child was secure.
Every day, parents in Douglas County entrust other people with the care of their children.
Choosing a day-care provider is no easy matter, said Tina Ferguson, child-care licensing coordinator for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.
"It is one of the most stressful decisions that a parent ever makes," she said.
The health department doesn't give parents recommendations on who to choose for day care, but it does provide families with tools to help them make good decisions, said Kay Kent, director of the health department.
"It's very important that parents take the initiative and talk to providers and visit providers," she said. "We're only going into a licensed facility one time a year, and we're looking for minimum standards. Parents need to use their own judgment. There's no way we can know everything that's going on all the time."
The regulations regarding day-care providers are complex and lengthy. The health department works with parents to educate them about what questions they need to ask and what they need to look for to ensure their children are safe.
Registered providers are able to care for up to six children ages 12 and under, including their own, and aren't subject to annual visits by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment unless a complaint is filed. Licensed providers may care for up to 10 children ages 11 and under, including their own, and undergo yearly inspections.
Day-care centers and preschools also serve children in Douglas County.
According to Ferguson, there are about 155 registered day-care homes in Douglas County, about 100 licensed or group day-care homes, and about 45 child-care centers and preschools. Group providers can care for up to 12 children.
Registered vs. licensed
"One thing we really do stress is that parents ask the provider, 'Are you licensed or registered?'" Ferguson said. "The certificate is supposed to be posted in the home, and you can ask to see the certificate."
After failing to apply for her annual registration in October 1997, Bird reapplied for a certificate July 29, 1998, and the state mailed it days before Hannah's death. After the baby died, state investigators found Bird, 33, was providing care for too many children, had not checked on the baby for more than an hour before her death was noticed and failed to notify the state about Hannah's death. The KDHE first investigated Bird on Aug. 29, 1996, for taking care of children without approval by the state.
The state does not check out the homes of registered providers.
"They fill out a provider's safety checklist where they have answered questions attesting to the safety of the home," Ferguson said.
The health department encourages parents to call with any questions they have about a provider, Ferguson said.
"If they're uncertain with something they've seen or heard happening at a child-care facility, we'd like to find out more," she said.
The death of Hannah Taylor affected everyone involved and took its toll at the health department, Ferguson said.
"Hannah's death was such a tragedy, and our hearts really go out to the families of everybody affected by her death," she said. "That's the main purpose of what we do here -- attempt to prevent situations like that from happening."
-- Deb Gruver's phone message number is 832-7165. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
DAY CARE TIPS
Here are some tips from Tina Ferguson, a former child-care provider who now works for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, to guide parents taking the day-care plunge: