Taking Responsibility 

Rules and regulations will not be enough to solve our day-care problems.

Last week, district attorney Bill Gibbons announced first-degree murder indictments for the van driver, monitor, and assistant director of the Children's Rainbow Learning Center. He said the charges were intended to "send a strong message to the day-care industry." The three individuals charged were deemed responsible for the death of 2-year-old Amber Cox-Cody after she was left in the center's van all day.

When Amber's Army, The Commercial Appeal's coalition of concerned citizens, center operators and employees, educators, and officials met a few weeks ago, many of those present stressed the need to send a message to the day-care industry. Lamenting the loss of another child, the group pledged to do whatever necessary to prevent such a thing from happening again. Speakers proposed all sorts of remedies: more training for workers, collaborations with faith-based organizations, even installing heat sensors on day-care vans.

Unfortunately, preventing another accident is much easier said than done.

The Department of Human Services (DHS) has already implemented a multitude of transportation guidelines, regulating everything from safety seats to emergency numbers, and there are still more to come in January. Transportation checklists must be signed by three center employees. Several vans are already equipped with alarms and automated devices to remind drivers to check vans for any remaining children before departing the vehicle.

At what point do we say, "Enough"? Not only to leaving children in day-care vans but also to adding more laws and hoping rules will take the place of responsibility. At the Amber's Army meeting, Lucie Roane, a former center operator and child-care-transportation review member under Governor Bredesen, cited the "attitude of carelessness" prevalent within Shelby County's child-care community. And therein lies the real problem.

No matter how good the intention, you can't regulate attitudes. The transportation records at the Children's Rainbow Learning Center were incorrectly kept for days prior to Amber's death. The Tippy Toes day-care van in which three children were killed last year was being driven by a known drug user. The list goes on and on. If day-care owners and workers don't care about safely managing the children in their care, what law can change that?

What has to happen is a change in the type of employees hired at child-care facilities. While training and experience are important, genuine compassion for children should also be included in the list of requirements.

In addition to holding child-care employees accountable, there should be guidelines for parents, who too often are left out of the responsibility circle. Parents drop off their children at child-care centers or have them picked up by the center's vans and leave them there all day without ever having to be inconvenienced. The clichÇ applies: Out of sight, out of mind.

Parents have a responsibility to exhaustively research facilities before enrolling their children. With most children in the centers approximately 45 hours a week, safety is paramount.

DHS has done a good job with its Star-Quality report-card system, giving centers from zero to three stars depending on scores in seven categories. Although a center doesn't have to receive a star to be licensed, the higher the star count, the better the center. Why parents would consider enrolling their children in a center with a zero or one star is mind-boggling. But the excuses are plentiful: "Those are the only centers in my neighborhood." "They provide transportation." Or "It's okay. Nothing has happened to my child yet."

The DHS has announced that it's discontinuing transportation subsidies, and many child-care advocates are hoping this will decrease the likelihood of another accident. But they are missing the point. Whether the state pays, parents pay, or transportation is a free service, there's always a possibility of danger. It's the character of the people hired and chosen to respond to the danger that matters.

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