A 64-year-old Eagan day-care provider has been charged with manslaughter and trying to mislead investigators in connection with the death of a 3-month-old child in her care last summer.
Beverly Greenagel was charged Tuesday in Dakota County with felony manslaughter and three misdemeanors related to the Aug. 18, 2011, death of Dane Ableidinger -- a death authorities believe was preventable.
The infant died after Greenagel placed him face down on a heavy blanket on a bedroom floor for a nap, and then didn't check on him for as much as an hour as she looked after 19 other children, according to court records. The arrangement violated numerous safe-sleep standards required by state licensing authorities to reduce the risk of infant deaths.
"It is always disturbing to see children die under any circumstance," Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said, "and it appears that proper monitoring and care could have avoided this tragedy."
Ableidinger's death contributed to a sharp increase in Minnesota child-care deaths in the past five years. The state has recorded 82 deaths in licensed day-care homes since 2002, with about two-thirds occurring since 2007. A Star Tribune investigation of the trend has prompted the state to review the deaths and its child-care safety standards.
Jerry Kerber, inspector general for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, said Wednesday that his agency hopes that criminal prosecution in the Greenagel case "will help all child-care providers recognize the serious nature of complying with safe sleep requirements for infants and the importance of not exceeding licensed capacity."
Criminal charges against child-care providers are unusual in Minnesota, in part because there are no witnesses to explain why sleeping infants die. In many cases, providers have lost their licenses; some were even cited for maltreatment by licensing authorities but not charged by prosecutors.
In the Eagan case, Backstrom said the charges are supported by physical evidence from Greenagel's home, along with medical testing that ruled out diseases or genetic defects as contributors to the death.
As a result of those test results, the county medical examiner earlier this year switched Ableidinger's cause of death from "undetermined" to "probable positional asphyxia," which means he probably suffocated because his body position preventing him from drawing enough breath.
Licensing officials shut down Greenagel's child-care facility the day after the death, and an administrative law judge affirmed that decision last fall. The judge even speculated that Greenagel was too busy with other children to provide a safe sleeping environment for Ableidinger.
Caring for 20 children
Greenagel's license allowed her to watch 12 children on her own, including one infant. On the day of the death, she had additional children in her care for an annual summer "water wars" event. The 20 children at her home included eight preschoolers, two toddlers and three infants, according to the county attorney's office.
The Star Tribune's review of licensing documents and death certificates found numerous cases of overcrowding in home-based day care, including several associated with deaths.
An attorney for Greenagel denied that her mistakes caused the infant's death. He questioned the medical examiner's updated ruling and speculated whether medication taken by the infant could have played a role.
"She was definitely in violation of day-care rules and regulations," said Marc Kurzman, Greenagel's attorney. "But her negligence -- to the extent violating those rules was negligence -- didn't cause the death."
Ableidinger's parents, Mac and Stephanie, declined to discuss the charges Wednesday. Dane, their first child, had been in Greenagel's care for only a few days before he died.
Greenagel had been a child-care provider for 35 years and had earned commendations from mayors and governors, but also had a history of citations. Twice, she had been cited for having too many children in care. Once, in 2007, an inspector specifically reminded her that infants must be placed to sleep in cribs.
A 12-year-old was assisting Greenagel on the day of the incident but had no formal training and was one year too young to be considered a legal helper.
Greenagel's response on learning of the boy's death led investigators to believe she was trying to cover up her mistakes. State licensing records indicate that she had her young helper call 911 while she folded a blanket stained with Ableidinger's blood and tossed it in a pile of other linens.
Records indicate that she then took over the 911 call and denied at one point that a child had died.
The criminal complaint alleges that Greenagel also told her helper to remove an infant from one of the cribs -- presumably to create the appearance that Ableidinger had been in the crib -- and to tell authorities that Ableidinger had slept in a crib.
Kurzman said that Greenagel acted out of panic, not deception: "What they're pointing to as calculated steps, were actually things done in the midst of the horror and confusion."
Greenagel is awaiting a civil hearing to try to regain her child-care license. She appeared in criminal court Wednesday morning and gained release from jail in the afternoon.