By: PJ Randhawa
COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Many child advocates and lawmakers are questioning just how much oversight home daycares receive after two Upstate infants died within six months of each other this year.
The recently embattled Department of Social Services is the agency in charge of licensing and registering all daycares in South Carolina. WIS' investigation discovered that knowing the place where your child is receiving care is left up to parents to get the facility's full history.
‘She was beautiful'
At 25, Kathryn Martin was about to start a family.
"My husband and I had just moved into our official home, and I decided OK, now is the time," Martin said. "We have a great school district, great support. We should just try. And two weeks later, I found out that I was pregnant."
Nine months later, bright-eyed Kellie Rynn was born to the Martins.
"And she was 6 pounds, 4.9 ounces, 19 inches long. Perfect. She really was. She was beautiful," Martin said.
Seven weeks later, Martin's maternity leave ended, so the couple started looking for a daycare. A friend referred her to a registered home daycare with what seemed to be a great reputation.
"And we toured her house, and she was awesome," Martin said.
But what Martin and other parents didn't know was Ms. Pam's Daycare was not licensed. It was registered.
"Licensed facilities have a pretty strict set of regulations they have to abide by," said Leigh Bolick, DSS childcare services director. "The other issue is we are allowed to inspect licensed facilities, which we have been doing twice a year."
Registered facilities are limited to six children and receive almost no DSS oversight.
"By law, we have not been able to inspect those facilities until there was a complaint filed against them," Bolick said. "We worry very much about every facility we are not able to go into. It doesn't mean they aren't doing a good job, but it does mean that parents can't rely that anybody from the state is going in to inspect them to make sure."
Of the roughly 3,000 daycare centers in the state, close to 1,300 are registered, not licensed. To become a registered home daycare, someone has to pass a background check and complete DSS paperwork.
"They don't search your home, and they don't search anything," Martin said. "I could be running a meth lab in my basement and have a childcare center, and they wouldn't know it."
There was no meth lab, but what was happening behind the doors of Pamela Wood's home was not OK.
A home daycare that was not what it appeared
Katie Gresham's children were in the same daycare the day Martin's daughter died.
"When you pull up at your daycare provider and you see a forensics truck parked out front, and you don't know what's going on, it's horrible," Gresham said. "Being questioned by police officers before you can get your children. Not knowing if they are OK. Not knowing what happened. I didn't know what happened until I was able to pick my children up that Kellie Rynn had passed away in her sleep in the same area that my baby was."
It was after Kellie Rynn's death that the facts started coming out about the home daycare center.
"The day after Kellie Rynn passed away, DSS showed up at my house and told me that there were 23 children there," Martin said. "Seven under the age of 1."
Marjorie Estoye was another mother who had children at the same home daycare.
"We know that she suffocated," Estoye said. "And we have pictures of her that morning. I know in the room there was only a crib, a pack-and-play, a bassinet and a swing. But there were seven kids there that day, so where were they sleeping. Were they sleeping together?"
Gresham said her 3-year-old child was found locked in a room with a loaded gun.
"I couldn't grasp the fact that she would put a 3-year-old in a room with a loaded firearm," Martin said.
Wood, the operator of the home daycare where Kellie Rynn died, was charged with unlawful neglect of a child, violation of child daycare licensing and obstructing justice. WIS went to Wood's home, but got no answer after knocking on the door. WIS also called her to get her side of the story, but she did not want to comment. There is no attorney listed on Wood's criminal case.
After Kellie Rynn's death in February, Martin and other mothers have taken action to demand more oversight by DSS.
"I have to spend the next 60 years without my daughter," Martin said. "So what can I do to help these children not have to go through this neglect? The parents don't have to go through this. This is the second death in six months of a child in an in-home childcare facility to pass away. How many children have to pass away before the state actually opens their eyes?"
A system to make extra money
The idea of registered home daycares came more than a decade ago as a way for stay-at-home mothers to care for neighborhood children and make some extra money in the process.
“It’s a paper application that you fill out and send in and that’s about it,” said Tricia Sheldon, president for the S.C. Board of Early Care and Education. “And you fill that paperwork out and send it in every year.”
Once that paperwork is completed, someone can care for up to six children in their home.
That’s how Ms. Pam’s Daycare was able to stay in business for more than a decade, despite previous complaints of overcrowding. DSS had not inspected the facility in years because they weren’t required to.
“Just really colorful, letters on the wall, calendars, so they could learn their numbers and everything,” Estoye said. “So it just felt really good.”
On the outside, a nice house in an upscale neighborhood. But inside, earlier this year, 3-month-old Kellie Rynn was found dead after she reportedly suffocated in her bassinet.
“They found that there were not only six children, but another 23 hiding in the basement with her teenage daughter,” Sheldon said. “It was so blatantly against what regulation is and the parents didn’t know. They didn’t. The provider had a system in place where, with security cameras, she would meet the parents at the door. There were certain parts of the house they weren’t allowed in. It was just a perfect storm set up where you know a 3- and-a-half-month old lost her life because of it.”
Martin blames Wood for her daughter’s death.
“Because Kellie Rynn passed away in a crime scene, I was not allowed to hold her. I could not hold my baby,” Martin said. “We are separated because of this person.”
Martin and the other mothers are now on a crusade to ensure parents know the limitations of DSS’ oversight of daycares.
“You can’t hide behind your money or your social status and think that nothing will happen to your children,” Martin said. “We are middle- to upper-income parents who trusted this person and you can’t hide behind that.”
Changes allow for more oversight
Home daycares become registered instead of licensed because it isn’t mandatory. Although DSS has not been legally allowed to inspect the registered home daycares in the past, a new law taking effect this month will allow one inspection per year. Despite this, child advocates fear it will not be enforced.
“Right now, we are coming up with a plan to present to our director to approve on when we can start doing that,” Bolick said. “Right now, we have to rely on the public to make these complaints. They really do say it takes a whole village to raise a child.”
WIS found many existing DSS protocols have no consequence if they’re not followed.
“We require them to close. We do not have the legal authority to fine,” Bolick said. “Kendra’s Law was passed a few years ago, and it does require that each family home acquire two hours of training every year. And it does not allow us to close a facility if they don’t get it.”
WIS asked DSS for a list of regulated daycare centers that it shut down since 2009, but were told that information was unavailable due to an office move.
The biggest dangers in choosing a home daycare center is knowing where your children are sleeping and who is watching them.
“So anytime for us when you go in a licensed childcare center into the infant room, there is nothing in the crib other than the infant and a crib sheet,” Sheldon said. “We don’t do blankets, stuffed animals. We don’t do anything that a child could possibly, we don’t do bumpers in the cribs. We don’t do anything that could obstruct.”
Mothers who trusted the same care provider as the Martins still regret that they didn’t recognize what they now realize were red flags.
“Looking back, it was quick exchanges at the door,” Estoye said. “Not really spending time talking about the day. Dropping off and taking the kid to get a Popsicle to make them be happy and not crying.”
Gresham feels guilt after Kellie Rynn’s death.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that doesn’t cross my mind,” she said. “It’s hard to live with that guilt, but it’s reality. I mean why wasn’t it my child.”
For Martin, the idea of re-starting her family is unbearable. But she takes comfort in the fact that Kellie Rynn’s life had a special purpose.
“Three and a half months. In three and a half months, she fulfilled her purpose. Now I am going to continue it,” Martin said.
DSS updated its website with Martin’s help to clarify which daycares are registered and which are licensed. It also lists if and how often each facility is inspected.
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