This week, Norfolk Circuit Court Judge Charles Poston dismissed a felony charge of child cruelty against a child care director who ran a program where 7-week-old Dylan Cummings died in May of 2010. What happened? What’s the issue?
Like “A Tale of Two Cities,” a Charles Dickens’ novel, this is a story of two types of child care in Virginia: licensed care and what’s called “religiously exempted child day care centers.” But, this isn’t a Charles Dickens’ novel, it’s real life. And, in this story, a baby died.
Betsy Cummings of Norfolk learned as a new mother to never lay her baby down to sleep on his stomach. She learned to place him to sleep on his back to reduce the likelihood of SIDS — Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. She enrolled her son in the Little Eagles Day Care program affiliated with the Bethel Temple Church of Deliverance, but she didn’t know that the state had different rules for licensed care compared to church run care. After returning to work for only one week, she received the call no parent wants. There was an incident at the child care center and she needed to come immediately. When she arrived, the paramedics told her that her baby was dead.
Court records show that Dylan was found unresponsive in the nap room after being placed to sleep on his stomach. The medical examiner’s report found that he was otherwise healthy and determined the cause of death as SIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “even when a thorough investigation is conducted, it may be difficult to separate SIDS from other types of sudden unexpected infant deaths, especially accidental suffocation in bed.”
Did Dylan die of SIDS or did he suffocate when placed to sleep on his stomach? We don’t know. But, we do know that the state of Virginia has tried to pre-empt such deaths in child care licensed by the state. In both VA licensed child care centers and family child care homes, babies are required to be put to sleep on their backs. There are specific monitoring and supervision requirements. There are specific annual training requirements: 16 hours for staff in centers and 14 hours (increasing to 16 hours in July of 2013) for family child care home providers. But, in license-exempt centers sponsored by religious organizations, there are no training requirements. There are no requirements to place infants to sleep on their backs.
According to a Norfolk area newspaper article, state social service workers investigated the Little Eagles center after Dylan’s death and cited the program for multiple violations (of the skeletal rules under which license-exempt religious centers operate). The violations included not having enough staff to care for infants in the center. The program has since closed.
Judge Poston said that the prosecutor failed to show that the child care director was intentionally negligent. This is not the first time for such a conclusion. Earlier this year, Juan Carlos Cardenas, a 22-month-old toddler, drowned in a church baptismal at an unlicensed child care center run by Praise Fellowship Assembly of God Church in Indiana. Like the case with Dylan Cummings, the center was exempt from licensing because it was a church sponsored program and was subject to a subset of broad rules, not the specific licensing rules that protect children. In the case of Juan Carlos, the staff lost track of him. He somehow walked away from his peers, through 2 unlocked doors, up a flight of steps, and drowned in the baptismal pool in the sanctuary. Similar to the case with Dylan Cummings, a state prosecutor didn’t think there was criminal intent.
Putting aside criminal intent, which courts will decide, what’s clear is that there are two standards: a licensing standard intended to protect the safety of children and a lower standard that does not. Training of child care providers is critically important, yet these centers were not required to follow licensing standards with regard to training (including safe sleep practices in the case of baby Dylan). It is time to ensure that all children in child care are safe. This is not about religion. It is not about Sunday school. It is about settings where people are paid to care for unrelated children. Is there any compelling reason why children should be less safe in some centers than others?
There shouldn’t be two sets of standards. It just doesn’t make sense. And, in the cases of Dylan Cummings and Juan Carlos Cardenas, they are dead. They died in the care of child care providers who operated centers exempt from licensing protections for children. Had the centers in which they were enrolled been required to follow licensing standards, there’s a good chance both children would still be alive. But, we’ll never know. What we do know, is that children in such centers can be better protected. Hopefully, this is a wake-up call for states like Virginia and Indiana that have two sets of standards. There are lives to be protected.
At a minimum, training requirements should be the same for all centers, regardless of their location or sponsorship. Training makes a difference. Training can save lives. Send an email to your Members of Congress today to require minimum training for child care providers as part of the reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant.