To Ramsey County child-care inspectors, Annette Ripley's home day care in St. Paul was a site of recurring problems -- such as sharp chicken wire in the yard and dirty sheets in the bedrooms -- that could place children at risk.
Parents had a different view: Ripley could be sloppy, they said, but she was loving and flexible -- and indispensable to their busy schedules.
So when regulators shut Ripley down two years ago, the families came to her defense and made a last-ditch attempt to keep the day care open, removing truckloads of trash and driving boxes of clutter to a storage center.
"Nobody was claiming that her home was as clean as a hotel lobby," said Stacy Fox, a friend of Ripley and the parents who helped with the cleanup. "We just were frustrated that ... the cleanliness of the home was more important [to inspectors] than the love and the training that the children were getting."
The episode reveals some of the pressures that squeeze parents seeking child care in Minnesota, including a growing shortage of suitable, affordable care and the personal loyalties that can develop between parent and provider. In addition, state law sometimes limits what regulators can reveal when explaining a shutdown to puzzled parents.
But it also reflects two troubling aspects of the state's child-care system: Parents sometimes turn a blind eye to problems, and often direct their anger at regulators, not the provider, when a day care is shut down.
Taken together, they can add to the challenges that regulators face in protecting children's health and safety, said Evelyn Nelson, head of child care licensing for Anoka County.
"As a parent, you're defensive of the provider,'' Nelson said. "[You're] thinking the county is overregulating and 'I don't have day care tomorrow and I've got to be at work.'"
In a few cases where the state sought to penalize or shut down a provider, parents have helped persuade judges to overrule the inspectors. But in others, loyalty blinded parents to serious problems.
In addition, parents can feel guilt, even denial, if they have placed their children in a facility where a child dies or a provider is accused of harm, said Julia Wrigley, a New York sociologist who has studied safety issues in child care.
"[They feel like] it's a commentary on their own judgment," she said. "They chose this provider. They kept their children with this provider. And so it creates a very high level of cognitive dissonance to contemplate the idea that this provider might have in some fashion been responsible for a child's death.''
In August 2011, for example, several parents offered written statements in support of Beverly Greenagel at an appeals hearing after her Eagan day care was shuttered following an infant's death. The Dakota County attorney has since charged Greenagel with manslaughter, accusing her of contributing to the death through her lack of oversight.
Providers can be like family
Licensed child care in a home setting appeals to thousands of Minnesota families because it tends to costs less than center-based care and, often, allows parents to form trusting relationships with the people who care for their children. Parents appreciate their flexibility on drop-off and pick-up times, and their willingness to tailor meals, toilet training and naps to the individual children.
"They become an extension of family," said Sandy Myers of Think Small, a St. Paul agency that trains providers and connects parents to suitable child-care facilities. "So to say, 'I'm going to now just drop my relationship with this person and go back into the unknown' -- it's a pretty scary thought for parents."
And then there are the state public-records laws, which sometimes prevent regulators from revealing why they first suspend the licenses of home day cares. As a result, parents who have not been involved in licensing complaints can be left in the dark.
State officials say they know parents don't get enough information when a provider's license is suspended, and are considering changes to public-records laws so they can better explain their actions, said Jerry Kerber, inspector general of the state Department of Human Services.
Openings are scarce
Even when parents do suspect trouble at their children's day care, switching providers on short notice can be daunting.
The number of licensed home day-care has declined by 17 percent since 2003, from 13,290 to about 11,000, according to the Minnesota Childcare Resource and Referral Network. Over the same period, Minnesota's population of preschool children has increased 11 percent.
Often, Myers said, parents must settle for their second or third choices because their preferred day cares lack vacancies.
Statewide, some 91 percent of slots in licensed family child care are occupied at any given time, according to the network's data. The vacancy rate isn't precise -- the number fluctuates depending on how many infants are in care -- but it reflects the challenges parents face.
Goodhue County, for example, has 1,388 licensed family child-care slots -- but only 63 were available as of Aug. 1.
A 'happy home'
The parents who rallied to Annette Ripley's defense believed they could clean the house to the satisfaction of inspectors. In a week of volunteer effort, they emptied the kitchen and cleaned every inch before deciding which dishes and pans could go back in the cupboards and which could be thrown away.
They removed old tires from the yard and unused toys from inside the home. Boxes from the basement were hauled out, even though the basement was not used by the children or licensed as part of the day care.
"We can't all live in Woodbury or Edina, where they have these giant houses. We're in St. Paul," Fox said. "There's nothing wrong with a small home if it's a happy home."
Their efforts, however, ultimately fell short. Regulators revoked Ripley's license in the spring of 2011 because she hadn't corrected all of the sanitary and code violations, and a judge upheld the decision last summer. Ripley offered to hire a housekeeper as a condition of staying open, but county officials didn't trust her to keep her home fit for kids.
Today, Ripley blames the county, saying she was assigned a new, overzealous inspector who cited her for things her previous inspector had deemed acceptable.
"We fenced the property, we cleaned everything from top to bottom,'' she said. "But it didn't matter. It wasn't good enough.''
"The parents loved me,'' she added. "One mom said: 'You're the only one I trust.'''
For their part, the parents who rallied to Ripley's defense still get their children together for play dates from time to time. They've managed to find new day care for their children, but many, Fox said, still wonder just what was wrong with Annette Ripley's house.
Reporter Brad Schrade contributed to this report. Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744