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This article is the sixth in a series investigating the child care system in Mississippi.
Ethan Henderson’s parents began leaving their 10-week-old son each day at Bizzy Bee’s Child Care in Jackson.
On the second day, Jan. 15, 2013, his father, Henry Henderson, arrived at 4 p.m. and saw many children in the front room. A worker went to get Ethan and then handed him to his father.
He noticed his son’s skin color was blue and he was unresponsive, according to a lawsuit filed in Hinds County Circuit Court. A milky substance was coming out of his son’s nose.
He asked what happened and got no response.
“He immediately started CPR as no one at the unlicensed daycare facility was certified or knew what to do,” according to the lawsuit.
Licensed child care centers are required to have workers trained in CPR. There is no such requirement for unlicensed centers.
Henderson told the staff to call 911. His son was rushed to Central Mississippi Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead after being treated in the emergency room.
Brenda Randles, who ran the center, denied in court records that she was guilty of any wrongdoing or neglect.
She said she had no knowledge anything was wrong with Ethan.
The lawsuit accused her of failing to monitor Ethan or have trained workers caring for him. The lawsuit also accused the child care center of failing to provide emergency care or contact a medical professional.
Randles denied these allegations in court papers. She could not be reached for comment.
Despite what happened, all that Health Department officials were legally able to examine was whether Bizzy Bee met the qualifications to remain unlicensed.
The Jackson child care center did.
Mississippi has a law that allows unlicensed centers to operate as long as they are filled with children related to the operator and as long as they keep no more than five other children who aren’t related.
Randles’ center, located inside a home, was watching 13 children — eight children of whom were relatives and another five who were not.
The lawsuit was settled against Bizzy Bee, which continues to be listed online as a child care center and has no license.
A Hechinger Report and Clarion-Ledger joint investigation of state child care inspection and complaint reports in Mississippi’s largest health department district found that many child care centers struggle to meet minimum regulations for health and safety. Experts say a lack of funding, a lack of devotion to early childhood education and a lack of oversight of both licensed and unlicensed centers are among the reasons why many children are being left behind.
No way to track deaths
Between 2004 and 2014, Virginia saw the deaths of 69 children, many of them involving Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, in child care centers — more than two-thirds of them in unlicensed centers.
Mississippi doesn’t track such deaths.
The state Department of Human Services, which investigates cases of child deaths involving allegations of neglect or abuse, has no overall numbers for child care center deaths.
Health Department officials say they have records of two child deaths over the past 11 years. Ethan Henderson is not one of them.
While the Health Department has no authority to inspect unlicensed homes, spokeswoman Liz Sharlot said licensed child care centers do report the deaths of children.
The department’s role is to determine the compliance of the facility and to document facts reported by the facility, she said. “Investigations regarding the cause of death are best investigated and handled by a medical professional or the coroner.”
She said the department’s primary goal in licensing is to “assure the safety and well-being of children being provided care in Mississippi’s child care centers.”
Unless the coroner notes the name of the child care center on the death certificate, Health Department officials remain in the dark.
First Candle, a Baltimore-based nonprofit promoting child safety awareness, says 60 percent of the 4,000 infants who die unexpectedly annually in the United States have done so in a “professional caregiver’s home,” 20 percent in child care centers and 20 percent in relative care.
The risks for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome are “great in the child care setting,” said Barb Himes, director of education and training for First Candle.
Unlicensed centers are not required to have the training and mandates that licensed centers do, she said.
Without such training, she said, infants may be wrongly placed on their stomachs on adult beds with pillows, blankets and stuffed animals around – contrary to American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations. And the Health Department has pushed a public awareness campaign to teach parents, caregivers and others about the best ways to curb these infant deaths.
But the department lacks the authority to inspect unlicensed centers, enabling them to operate with no oversight beyond qualifications.
In contrast, it inspects licensed centers, which must provide enough child care workers per child, clean kitchens and many other requirements.
Licensing no criteria for vouchers
Despite the lack of state oversight, unlicensed centers are eligible for federal funds.
Some states bar unlicensed centers from receiving federal funding through vouchers. Mississippi is not one of them.
Almost a fourth of the more than 1,500 child care centers in Mississippi that receive federal funds from these child care vouchers are unlicensed.
Hailey Johnson, 26, who lives in Jackson with her husband and her 4-year-old son, wound up using an unlicensed center about a year ago because of the cost.
“You can find somebody for $60 a week, instead of $150,” she said.
In the days after she left her son, “some very questionable things started happening,” she said. “He was coming home and saying some scary things.”
She saw attitude changes and heard him mention “some very minor sexual things,” she said.
She questioned the owner, who denied any knowledge of problems.
“There were eight kids, most older than him,” she said. “There was nothing I could do about it, but take him out of there.”
She said she is now unable to hold a daytime job because of the expense of child care for her son. “I have to work tables at night and pray somebody will take him.”
Her husband suffers from mental illness, she said, and she is unable to leave their son with him.
“Right now, I’m supposed to go to work my first night, and I have to find a family member to keep him,” she said. “He’s only 4 so he can’t go to public school, and he really needs to be in day care, but I can’t afford it.”
Since 2000, Mississippi State University’s Early Years Network has worked with more than 1,200 unlicensed centers, trying to improve child care quality.
The network has a quality rating improvement system for those providers, said Director Louise Davis. “It’s very rigorous.”
So far, no center has turned down help, she said. “What we’ve found is everybody is doing the best they can.”
Donna McNair, who takes care of five children in her home in Pearl, works with the network, where she has received extensive training and materials.
“It’s a lot of extra work, but it was all worth it,” she said.
She recently earned her AA degree in early childhood development.
She said the job enables her to work from home, giving her time at night to catch the games of her youngest son playing basketball for Holmes Community College.
Davis said the reason about 40 percent of Mississippi children remain in unlicensed centers, many of them caregivers’ homes, is “Mississippi is a very poor state.”
Child care runs so high in Mississippi that some single mothers spend more on child care than they do on rent.
And help for struggling parents is limited.
Demands and funding out of sync
Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, said only about 15 percent of those eligible for child care subsidies in the state are receiving them.
She sees inconsistency in the early childhood world.
She said there are those in the state government who say they want quality in child care centers, “but we’ve got to pay for it somehow.”
Gov. Phil Bryant said “he wants kids to read,” she said, “but we don’t have an early childhood program to achieve that goal.”
Two-thirds of incoming kindergarteners in Mississippi lack early reading skills, according to tests given the students.
Mississippi is championing “a higher participation rate” in the workforce, Burnett said, yet “we won’t give child care to parents that do work.”
She works across the state with low-income child care centers, which struggle to survive because of low state funding.
She said the state’s vouchers for child care average about $75 a week. Meanwhile, child care centers may charge $150 a week or more.
She said these low-income centers, which are licensed, “are scraping by, trying to keep these fees low enough so the parents can afford it. They’re wanting to help these parents.”
Licensing requirements by the Health Department encourage child care operators to hire a more educated staff, but many operators say they find it difficult to hire those with two- and four-year college degrees.
Dorothy Lewis, who operates Precious Years Child Development Center in Columbia, said when she does hire some with more education, they often leave for better paying jobs. “We have high turnover,” she said.
Eva Smith, who runs Smiles Learning Center in Starkville, said centers can’t afford to pay salaries to keep the more qualified employees because state funding is so low. “Something has to give,” she said.
Carolyn Todd, who runs Enchanted Days in Senatobia, said licensed child care centers are hurt by child care vouchers failing to pay the market rate.
She said the unlicensed centers receive the exact same voucher funding — without fulfilling the same requirements that licensed centers are required to do.
Helen Taylor, who operates the Brickfire Project child care center in Starkville, said Mississippi needs to do more to support child care centers that have been licensed by the state.
“We could have all gotten another job,” she said, “but we have to do this — for the children.”
Contact Jerry Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 961-7064. Follow @jmitchellnews on Twitter.
This story was produced by The Clarion-Ledger in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. In the coming weeks, this series will look at solutions to the child care problem for Mississippi and other states.