‘He was our little angel’ SC mother wants more oversight of day cares
More from the series
Troubles in S.C. home day cares
For the first time, South Carolina is now inspecting day cares operated in people’s homes. What inspectors are finding is disturbing.
When children die in SC home day cares, little justice, transparency for parents
Social Services took her kids away, but allowed this SC woman to run a home day care
Day care costs more than a house for many SC parents, if they can even get a spot
Roaches, feces, children left alone? 5 horror stories found inside SC home day cares
Kerri Gray had been back at the office for only three weeks since giving birth to her son. It was the end of her work day, and her mind drifted to baby Jackson, who she soon would pick up from a home day care.
Then came the frantic phone call.
Jackson, 3 months old, wasn’t breathing, said the woman who was watching him and other children in her home. They were trying CPR. They had called 911.
Driven by a coworker, Gray fought through Greenville rush hour traffic. She called Jackson’s father, out of town for work, and told him what little she knew. Jumping out of the car at the caregiver’s home, Gray heard someone yell “Let her in!” She climbed into the front seat of the ambulance just as it was pulling off, her son out of sight in the back.
Then Gray was standing in the emergency room, watching in disbelief, as her son’s tiny lifeless body became host to tubes and sensors and doctors huddled around him, their voices ordered but urgent, their hands working madly to save him.
“That went on for seemingly forever,” Gray recently recalled. “And then they just said there was nothing more they could do.”
Gray later learned from the coroner that baby Jackson had suffocated after his caregiver put him down for a nap in a play pen with a bib around his neck and a plush blanket folded beneath him — unsafe sleep conditions known to raise the risk of infants’ deaths.
New S.C. policies — put in place the year after Jackson’s 2013 death — were supposed to ensure home day care providers were following safe sleep practices. But infants left in their care continue to die, The State Media Co. found in a review of home day care records.
Following these tragedies, day care providers, including baby Jackson’s, seldom face criminal charges. And records of the infants’ deaths are often hard to come by, leaving parents and the public in the dark about the home day cares’ troubled histories.
“It was heartbreaking to know that she didn’t use safe sleep,” Gray said of her day care provider. “There’s all this stuff that she should have had and should have done and she didn’t. And we didn’t know.”
From 2014 to 2017, six infants died in S.C. home day cares — child care operations in which providers keep up to six children in their own homes. Home day cares are sometimes seen as a more intimate or affordable option for families than larger, more regulated day care centers.
Five of those children, like Jackson, were laid down to sleep in conditions now deemed unsafe for infants in all state-approved child care facilities.
Their deaths mostly have been chalked up to accidents, despite medical examiners and investigators sometimes linking the child’s death to unsafe sleep.
That contradiction serves up another brutal blow to parents grieving the loss of their children and hoping law enforcement will hold their caregivers accountable.
When the Grays asked law enforcement what charges could be brought against their day care provider, they were told there was nothing they could do, Gray said. The couple was stunned.
“I even said to the police officer, ‘So you’re telling me that people can leave their dogs in the car and (if) their dogs die … (you) arrest them on criminal charges. But she can leave my kid upstairs in a pack-n-play and it’s neglect and you can’t do anything?’”
Four of the six providers who had children die in their care from 2014 to 2017 are still in business.
Could the use of safe sleep practices have saved the children’s lives? It’s tough to say. The S.C. Department of Social Services, which regulates the state’s day cares, would not discuss specific cases with The State. And some of the records paint an unclear picture, raising questions about whether underlying health issues could have contributed to the deaths in some cases.
But to parents like Gray, there is no doubt that their children would still be alive if day care providers had followed safe sleep practices.
“Absolutely it would have saved him,” Gray said of her son, Jackson. Had he been in a crib without any blankets or a bib, “he would still be here.”
‘Behind closed doors’
Most home day care operators follow the rules, pass inspections and keep children safe, state child care officials told The State recently. Home day cares also are a life line for many families, offering flexible hours at affordable rates. In some communities, they are the only daycare option.
More is being done than ever before to ensure home day cares are safe places for children. Since Jackson’s 2013 death, Social Services has stepped up its monitoring of the centers, which comprise a third of the state’s roughly 2,500 child care facilities.
▪ Following passage of a 2014 law, Social Services has conducted one unannounced inspection of every home day care each year. Previously, the state could only inspect if a complaint was received. Regulators also visit the homes once a year when providers apply to renew their registrations. Since the new law’s passage, regulators have conducted more than 4,100 unannounced inspections and investigated more than 200 complaints through 2017. Those investigations and inspections led to more than 600 citations for deficiencies over those four years.
▪ The agency also now requires home day care providers to provide safety-certified cribs for each infant in their care. For several years, the agency offered to reimburse the cost of cribs. And providers must complete 10 hours of annual training, up from two before a 2016 law took effect. As of November, new applicants to become providers must watch a safe sleep video at orientation.
While those changes are steps in the right direction, child care providers who break the rules need to be held accountable, say mothers whose babies have died in home day cares.
“If that child passes away from unsafe sleep or something that can be prevented, there has to be a (criminal) charge for it,” said Kathryn Martin, whose 3-month-old daughter suffocated in a bassinet at a Greenville home day care in 2014.
The provider in that case, Pamela Wood, faced three charges. Only one — unlawful neglect — dealt specifically with harming children, despite investigators finding children left unattended in her home, including two in a room where a loaded gun was on a shelf.
Wood’s home day care was shut down and she later pleaded guilty to the charges.
Even with recent rules changes, mothers who have lost children in home day cares say they won’t take the risk again.
“There is not enough oversight on home day cares. Don’t do it,” said Gray, who now has a 2-year-old daughter in a day care center she loves in part because of cameras in the classrooms.
“People can seem one way when you’re there, and how do you know what happens behind closed doors? You don’t.”
It’s a problem at least one state lawmaker engaged in child-welfare issues would consider changing.
State Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, told The State she would consider beefing up state law to increase penalties for providers who use unsafe sleep practices and have children die in their care.
“Sadly, it will never bring those babies back,” she said. “It’s a horrible thing when you see that people don’t care, or even people are evil and put children in harm’s way on purpose.”
‘Nothing you ever think is going to happen’
In five of the six cases where children died in home day cares, details from law enforcement, coroners, Social Services, court records and interviews with parents and providers indicate that the child was laid down to nap in an environment considered unsafe by the state’s current standards for child care facilities.
In one case, the infant was put down to nap on an adult bed. In another, a child died after being swaddled and placed on his side in a crib. He suffocated when he rolled onto his face.
In two other cases, infants were laid down to nap in a bassinet and a play pen, both environments the state says are not safe for sleeping infants in S.C. child care facilities. The coroners blamed a severe respiratory infection in one case, and sudden unexplained death in infancy in the other.
However, the most egregious and well-known example — and the only one resulting in criminal charges — was the 2014 death of 3-month-old Kellie Rynn Martin, who helped inspire the new law along with baby Jackson. She died from “suffocation by bedding” while lying in a bassinet at Pamela Wood’s Greenville home. Investigators found 22 other children in the home, almost four times the legal limit, including 14 concealed in the basement and two children in a room where there was a loaded handgun on a shelf. Wood was the only home day care provider in the six infant deaths that resulted in criminal charges.
In the aftermath of losing Jackson, the Grays had many unanswered questions about how he died.
But the night doctors wrapped Jackson’s body in a blanket and handed him to Gray, the shock of losing him and the work of grief took over.
A few hours later, Jackson’s father made it to the hospital where they said goodbye to their son. A line of friends and family snaked down the hospital hallway. And before they got home without their son, a friend had gone ahead to pick up Jackson’s belongings around the house and close the immediate reminders of his loss behind his bedroom door.
“Some of my friends came by and no one said anything. We just sat around and cried. It was quite a few days that door just stayed shut,” Gray said.
“It’s nothing you ever think is going to happen.”
Fighting for transparency
These days, Gray is glad she can go to the office of her daughter’s day care center and ask to review video surveillance from her classroom.
Since losing Jackson, she’s come a long way to trusting the professionals caring for Bailey. The girl shares joyful stories at school of the older brother she’ll never know, stories her parents tell her to keep Jackson’s memory alive.
One of the parents who testified in 2014 for tougher laws, Gray hopes continuing to share Jackson’s story will keep that effort going and help other parents avoid suffering the same tragedy.
Parents researching day cares shouldn’t rely solely on Social Services’ website for information about the histories of home day cares.
The agency maintains a public database of providers online, but parents can’t always see when a provider has been cited for a violation in their home. And the citations listed online are sometimes unclear.
Parents have no way of knowing a child died in Stacy Burton’s home day care in Belton due to unsafe sleep practices — a child being swaddled and laid on his side — just by looking at the website. The only citations listed are “improper supervision” and “safety violation.”
Asked whether the agency could do more to inform parents of day cares where children have died, Social Services officials said the information the agency is allowed to release depends on the circumstance. However, if Social Services finds any member of the child care home abused a child, the center would no longer be allowed to operate.
Some lawmakers and advocates say the death of a child in a home day care should be readily available to parents, but only if the death could have been prevented.
“Children aren’t supposed to die, they’re young and they’re supposed to thrive,” said Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Victims Council and member of the state Child Fatality Advisory Committee.
Hudson calls for full transparency, saying all violations should be made public on Social Services’ website. Parents should even be able to see when a child died from natural causes or unexplained reasons, with a short explanation, she said. “That’s pretty important.”
But the public should especially know if a child died due to an unsafe sleep environment, she said.
Social Services twice cited Diane Broughton, who operates in Charleston County, for unsafe sleep practices — once for placing an infant to sleep in something other than a crib and again eight months later for allowing five children to sleep in play pens. The violations show up as “cribs” and “rest time,” and both are listed as infractions with low severity.
Hudson said parents must be vigilant and look out for their children, no matter where they put them.
“If I were considering putting my child anywhere, I would pop in there unannounced at all kinds of odd times just to find out what they were doing and how they were handling it,” she said.
“You’re just going to have to do your own due diligence because the state is not doing it.”
‘A slap on the hand’
In the weeks following Jackson’s funeral, the Grays were dealt another blow when they learned his death, though ruled an accident, likely could have been prevented, Gray said.
The coroner said he died of “bedding by suffocation.” Gray said she had no idea he was sleeping in a play pen with a thick blanket and a bib still around his neck.
Social Services shut the operator down and added her to the child abuse registry.
But Gray and her husband wanted more justice. So they filed a wrongful death lawsuit against their provider and won, she said.
“This was a way to kind of hurt her after what she put us through. It wasn’t about the money. It was about what she did. We didn’t want a penny,” Gray said.
The lawsuit, which went on for about a year and resulted in the provider’s insurer paying out, was not really punishment, Gray said.
“All around it was a slap on the hand for her.”
The State reached out to the provider, Julian Michelle Schneider, but she did not return requests for comment.
Wood is the only home day care provider to receive punishment after a child died in her care, The State found in reviewing law enforcement records from 2014 to 2017. Wood pleaded guilty to three charges: obstructing justice, unlawful neglect and illegal operation of a day care facility.
Her case still serves as a cautionary tale about how dangerous a home day care can be.
“My eyes were really opened to this part of the world,” said Tricia Sheldon, a private child care professional who chairs a committee tasked with coming up with regulations for child care facilities. “I had no experience with home care centers at all until Kellie Rynn passed away.
“They’re all extremely intelligent women. They got suckered,” Sheldon said. “People that don’t know these women said, ‘How could they not know?’ (Wood) put a lot of thought and effort into how to break the rules.”
These days, Gray says the pain of losing Jackson sticks with her.
“You always grieve. But you live to your new normal,” she said. “You have to go on. The world doesn’t stop,” she said. “I have just decided, I get up every day. I go to work. I take care of my kid. My husband is very supportive. We both have our bad days. You just keep on going.”