Star Tribune Editor: State is slipping in child care safety

  • Updated: May 6, 2012 - 6:39 AM

Our reporting on infant sleeping deaths aims to identify the ways a needed and typically well-run industry can improve.

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At the Green Valley Township Cemetery on 3/21/12, Jackson Fletcher , 2, and his mother Amanda visited the grave of his brother Blake Mitchum Fletcher, who was 3.5 months old when he died in the morning on the first day of attending daycare.The cause of death is undetermined but a contributing factor was being placed face down in a playpen.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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As our staff began investigating the tragic increase in the number of infants dying while in day care, I confess to having a twinge of guilt. As the mother of three, I know that I often put my babies to sleep on their stomachs, thinking they would be most comfortable. One daughter was colicky, and it seemed to settle her down to rest that way.

I was a young mother, and thankfully, no harm came of that practice. They've grown up to be three beautiful, if headstrong, young women.

But education is a powerful force, and after reading some of the findings we published in today's front-page story, I would do things differently. I hope that others will learn from these findings, too.

Perhaps, with education, we can prevent other infants from the tragic fate of 3-month-old Blake Fletcher, who died in an in-home day care center because he was placed face down in a playpen to sleep. That's not an opinion; that's the official cause cited by a coroner.

Over the years, we've come to better understand that infants, with their undeveloped muscles, are simply safer sleeping on their backs. That's because they can suffocate, as Blake Fletcher did, if they roll onto their breathing passages, particularly when sleeping on padded or fluffy surfaces.

However, our reporting shows that Minnesota has slipped significantly in preventing infant deaths from sleeping, after previously making gains more than a decade ago. Reporters' review of records show that the number of deaths in Minnesota's child care centers has almost doubled in the last five years, with a baby dying almost every month.

Most have involved infants who were sleeping. And almost all of them have been in in-home centers, where one adult is often working alone.

To understand why these deaths are on the rise, we've committed three full-time reporters and a photographer to this project, to scour case files and death certificates, to investigate problem homes, and to examine training and staffing issues.

As today's story details, there are troubling patterns. Some centers were found to have babies sleeping on open beds, or in swings, or in swaddled bedding. Some had more children than they could safely watch. And safe-sleep training was too often lacking.

Our intent is not to malign the family child care system, which serves some 90,000 children. These small, family-run businesses provide an important and necessary service to parents who need someone to watch their children while they work. The majority of these centers are well-run, and even under the best of circumstances, an infant can die.

We do, however, want to shed light on what the state Department of Human Services now considers a public health crisis.

And we hope that if we arm families and providers with more information about the conditions in their child care homes, and about safe-sleeping practices, we can save more babies -- and spare their parents the heartbreak that the Fletcher family has suffered.

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Nancy Barnes is the Star Tribune's editor.

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