The number of children dying in Minnesota child-care facilities declined sharply in the past eight months after a sharp rise that for years had gone undetected by state regulators.
In a report issued Wednesday, state officials said the “alarming trend” of child-care deaths has been stalled, with just one death in the last eight months.
Following a Star Tribune investigation last year that uncovered the rising number of deaths, state and county regulators stepped up enforcement, with more fines for providers who ignored safe sleep practices, and increased communication to the 11,000 in-home providers across the state.
The state recorded nine child-care deaths last year, but none after July. So far this year, just one death has been reported.
Jerry Kerber, inspector general at the Department of Human Services, said the drop is good news, but could only speculate on the reasons behind it.
“It seems to indicate the increased attention to this issue has heightened awareness of providers to comply with these regulations,” Kerber said. “I think what we want to believe is that parents have been brought into the conversation more so.”
From 2007 to 2011, the state averaged 10 deaths per year. It was on pace early last year to outstrip those numbers, with six deaths in the first two months. The vast majority of the deaths occurred at licensed in-home day cares, and most involved sleeping infants.
Following the newspaper’s reporting, a state child mortality review panel examined 10 years of data and issued a report last summer that found troubling safety breakdowns, including many deaths that involved sleeping infants who had been placed in unsafe sleep positions or environments. Kerber’s agency proposed a series of safety improvements, including additional training and oversight, and vowed to bring them before the Legislature this session.
In recent weeks those proposals have run into resistance from the child-care provider community and some of their allies in the Legislature. They say tighter regulation could raise costs for them and for parents, and impose requirements that would be difficult to follow. Some providers, for example, have expressed concern about rules requiring them to check on sleeping infants with more frequency, or increasing training requirements without ensuring the training is accessible.
“We know there will be changes,” said Kathy Stevens, an in-home provider who is a leader in her local association near Brainerd. “Sometimes that is good. But it has to make sense. We cannot afford more regulations that cost us more money. We don’t have it.”
Proponents of regulation say the drop in deaths does not reduce the need to pass more safety reforms. Kathleen Fernbach, director of the Minnesota Sudden Infant Death Center, said she attributes the drop in deaths to everyone being “on high alert,” but said she has been surprised by resistance to the legislative proposals in the face of data that pointed to clear problems.
Concern about backslide
“Whatever is going on, how do we continue it?” she asked. “How do we make sure this continues to move forward and we don’t see a backslide?”
The intensity of the concerns was discussed briefly at a legislative committee hearing on Wednesday. Kerber also met with provider groups on Wednesday, still trying to reach agreement on reforms that can win support of providers and lawmakers. He is expected to testify on Friday.
Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson issued a statement with the release of the Licensing Division’s annual report that highlighted the drop in deaths.
“Every death of a child is tragic, but even more so when it could have been prevented,” she said. “These results are encouraging, but we must take additional steps to ensure we are doing all that we can to keep children safe.”