Tue, 29 Nov 2022

With 58% of working parents relying on childcare centers, the industry remains both a necessity for families and a significant source of income for daycare owners. There is nothing wrong, of course, with making a living by taking care of small children as their parents work. The question, however, is just how well-regulated daycares truly are and if additional regulations need to be passed in order to make them safer. Some daycare directors might say that no new rules are necessary. However, a November 8, 2021, collision in Houston that sent five small children under the care of The Children's Courtyard to the hospital is raising concerns.

The investigation conducted by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and the Texas Department of Health and Human Services determined the facts of the accident. Kassandra Hutchins, who was driving The Children's Courtyard's bus, was in charge of taking five young children, ages 4-9, to their schools.

Three problems arose before the bus even left the parking lot. First, Hutchins had not received the mandatory training required by Texas law, representing the first deviation from guidelines by The Children's Courtyard. Second, the phone normally assigned to the bus was broken and had not yet been fixed, meaning that Hutchins' phone was the only one in use. Third, while the non-driving adult on the bus, Chelsy Millian, may have had a phone with her, the daycare's director, Jennifer McLemore, did not have her number. McLemore could only text the driver of the bus, Hutchins.

With these factors in play, Hutchins began driving The Children's Courtyard's bus, and a few minutes later received a text from McLemore stating that a child may have been abandoned in the daycare's parking lot.

Hutchins read the text, then turned her head to scan the bus for the missing child. Because she had taken her eyes off the road, she did not see that she was approaching a stoplight, where several cars had already stopped and were waiting for it to turn green.

Data from the airbag control module after the collision would show that Hutchins did not apply her brakes prior to the accident - instead, she accelerated from 37 mph to 39 mph. Going nearly 40 mph, she slammed into the cars with such force that a witness described the sound as like a giant Coke can that was crushed. A child later told investigators that the child passengers 'almost hit the ceiling.'

Most of us can probably empathize with Hutchins, as who among us has not been distracted at some point while driving? While Hutchins is a human being and her lapse in concentration is relatable, the problem concerns the children's seatbelts: many were not fastened at the time of collision. The unwritten policy was that both the bus driver and the supervisor would perform a two-point check: they would observe that the seatbelts were fastened and also tug on it to make sure it was properly fastened. Only then would the bus begin to move. This didn't happen - instead, Millian asked if the children were buckled, the children said yes, and no walkthrough or physical check was performed.

The collision broke both legs of one child and caused head injuries among other children as well as Millian and Hutchins. While the victims waited for emergency medical personnel, bystanders who had witnessed the accident helped children offload from the bus and make it to safety on the sidewalk. A woman who was four months pregnant and had been in the car hit by the bus also helped the children. With kids screaming and crying for their parents, the scene was chaotic.

This raises the question of The Children's Courtyard's employees, who could be forgiven for being shaken up but who still had their own responsibilities as caregivers for the children that were in their charge. Witnesses state that they largely did not help the kids and instead stood off to the side on their own. Also concerning is the fact that most children could not call their parents because in violation of Texas law, employees of The Children's Courtyard did not have a list of parents' names, telephone numbers, and emergency telephone numbers for each child.

So, at this point, there were two primary issues with the daycare: a bus driver who was not properly trained to do her job and the inability of caregivers to contact families when an emergency struck.

Now the response of The Children's Courtyard to the accident is being scrutinized. With driver inattention and questionable policies established, the daycare and its parent company, The Learning Care Group, tried to escape responsibility.

It has been ascertained by investigators that Hutchins and McLemore discussed which information would be shared or withheld. They misled parents about the accident and the status of their children, saying that they were not injured when they had, in fact, been harmed. They also withheld relevant information from police and state investigators.

Arguably most concerning was their attempt to shift blame onto Jon Kennedy, one of the Good Samaritans who helped the children after the accident. Hutchins and McLemore stated that Kennedy had stopped suddenly, but his car had already been stopped for 45-60 seconds by the time the collision occurred.

The Children's Courtyard also did not conduct a thorough investigation of the crash and refused to conduct drug and alcohol testing on Hutchins, the driver. Witnesses report not being contacted by the daycare for their testimony about what happened.

Again, while the aftermath of any accident, especially one that involves children, can be frightening and disorienting, the wrongdoer is still expected to cooperate with investigations to their completion.

The State of Texas conducted its own investigation and interviewed witnesses and the Children's Courtyard's leadership and employees. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services ultimately found that the children had been the victims of neglectful supervision by The Children's Courtyard. The Texas Department of Health and Human Services issued the results of its own investigation, leading to numerous minimum standard violations against the daycare. In addition to a $1,000 administrative penalty, The Children's Courtyard was required to post a notice on the door of its Six Pines location that said it was on probation for 'repeated violation of minimum standards, rules, or other relevant laws.'

These were all good steps, as was the requirement that the daycare hold an employee meeting about why the business was facing corrective action and what could have been done differently.

Their effectiveness, however, was diminished because investigators did not yet have all the facts. McLemore, The Children's Courtyard's director, had not told them that she had been texting with Hutchins right before the accident. McLemore also had not conducted her own thorough investigation, including contacting witnesses, speaking to Hutchins about the collision, or reading Hutchin's statement.

With the example of The Children's Courtyard, let's return to the original questions: how safe are America's daycares and what can be done to ensure that they follow regulations? There are no easy answers, unfortunately. Perhaps some can be found in deeper discussions between lawmakers and parents, those who are most invested in making sure that children are truly safe throughout each day.

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