State questions lapse in notification after day-care death

  • Article by: BRAD SCHRADE and JEREMY OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 14, 2012 - 8:00 AM

State regulators question why it took Stearns County a week to notify them of a toddler's death.

Minnesota's top child-care regulator says Stearns County officials failed to notify his office promptly after a 15-month-old boy died at a day-care home in May.

Jerry Kerber, inspector general in the Department of Human Services (DHS), said his office will dig deeper to find out why it took a week for the county to inform his regulators of the death. The May 31 death is the first since the inspector general called for a statewide licensing crackdown in an effort to stem an alarming rise in-home day-care deaths, detailed in Star Tribune reports over the past four months.

"There may be a problem here that we have to look into deeper," Kerber said. "... Was there any kind of gap in the cross-reporting functions that are required in the law, and if there was a gap, what was the impact of that gap?"

At issue is how well state and county regulators are able to monitor critical child-care incidents in order to identify safety issues that, if addressed, would better protect children. Kerber said his regulators only learned of the death on June 6. Furthermore, the county's child-care licensers told the DHS they learned of the incident only a day before the state was notified, he said.

Stearns County officials declined repeatedly to discuss details of the case, but did say sheriff's investigators were on top of the investigation from the time the provider called 911. The county cited the ongoing investigation for not commenting further.

"There is no more serious investigative tool that we can put in place than the invoking of a law enforcement investigation," said Matthew Quinn, chief deputy attorney for Stearns County, who added that law enforcement officials and social service workers share information on such investigations.

County licensing officials waited nearly a month before visiting the home to inspect it after the death. When a licensing inspector showed up on June 25, they found an infant sleeping in a car seat, and local regulators cited the provider for the unsafe sleep position, which can increase the risk of a SIDS death. On June 29, the state suspended provider Joan Wenning's license based on that inspection.

Parents at the day care criticized licensing officials for what they say was a lack of communication after the child's death or a clear explanation for the suspension. Any safety concern should have been addressed sooner than June 25, said Brenda Jensen, who had two children at the home and who wrote a letter of support for Wenning, who is appealing the suspension.

"If they had any concerns that she was at fault, which we as parents did not, they should have been at Joan's and doing the inspection first or calling and questioning the parents," Jensen said.

Kerber said that the response by licensers was not ideal, but that the provider voluntarily closed the facility after the death and that no children were at risk. The DHS inquiry into the county's actions will fit into a broader review of child-care safety as the state tries to strengthen regulations to prevent deaths and strengthen response to incidents. "This case may provide us with some good information," Kerber said.

Stearns County officials defended their response, saying there was nothing at the time of the death to indicate that Wenning was at fault.

By calling 911, Wenning met her legal reporting requirements. Kerber said his review will examine reporting breakdowns at the county level.

Wenning's account of the timeline differs from the state's version.

She said she called 911 on the day of the incident and contacted county licensors the next day. She said she received a form to fill out about the incident and returned it to the county. Wenning didn't hear back from county licensing officials until she reopened June 25 and an inspector showed up at her house, she said.

Parents of the child who died did not return a phone call. Jensen and another parent described Wenning as a dedicated caregiver and said they want her day care to reopen.

brad.schrade@startribune.com • 612-673-4777 jeremy.olson@startribune.com • 612-673-7744

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