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Reasonable regulation can prevent deaths at unlicensed child care centers

Restaurants are businesses, subject to food safety regulation and more. Movie theaters must meet health and safety rules. Auto dealers are required to comply with motor vehicle licensing laws, as well as state and federal tax requirements and more.

But when an individual or church-affiliated group cares for infants and young children in exchange for payment, the state treats the business operation as some sort of charitable endeavor, nearly exempt from the common-sense regulation it demands of other financial enterprises.

Ministry day cares, like the one at an Indianapolis church where a toddler drowned in a baptismal font last year, also are exempt from regulation. One important and unfortunate result is that the youngest and most helpless Hoosiers are in danger.

Three-month-old Coree Carmichael died March 28 at an unlicensed day care business in Garrett. Providers watching fewer than six unrelated children operate outside the rules placed on licensed child care businesses. Garrett police found nine children in Amber McNay’s home on the day Coree died.

McNay told the Indianapolis Star she had left the baby on her stomach in a playpen, with a toy and blanket, as she did most days. In licensed child care businesses, providers are required to participate in sleep-safety training, which for years has instructed caregivers to leave babies on their backs without toys or blankets.

But Amber McNay’s child care operation was not just unlicensed; it was ruled illegal when state inspectors finally visited. She told the Bureau of Child Care that she typically cared for eight children, plus her own four children. She continues to operate the business, according to her husband, but is working to become a licensed provider.

“She’s got some classes left to do,” said Robert McNay. “She has to update her CPR; we have to get a fence put up. She’s been working real close with the state to get everything the way it should be.”

He said his wife no longer cares for infants and limits the number of children she watches to five.

No charges have been filed in the 3-month-old’s death, which was ruled a result of sudden infant death syndrome.

But Coree Carmichael’s death in an unlicensed child care home was far from an isolated event. Eighteen-month-old Payton Brettell died in Warsaw in August 2012, strangled by a car seat. He was one of eight children in the unlicensed home, according to South Bend’s WSBT-TV.

Twenty-two-month-old Skylar Bullocks died last year about a month after she was pulled from a swimming pool in Osceola. A 4-year-old jumping on a trampoline spotted her in the pool and tried to pull her out. They were among nine children at the unlicensed child care home. A 4-month-old baby died in July 2012 after she was found unresponsive in a portable crib at an unlicensed child care home in Brownsburg. Police said 14 children were in the home.

It’s easy to blame parents for leaving their children in unregulated child care settings, but young families often are overwhelmed by work, family and financial responsibilities. A child care recommendation from a friend, neighbor or pastor can carry much clout, even if it’s based on second-hand information. Rural counties also have limited options – the state’s child care directory shows just 18 listings for DeKalb County; two are unlicensed ministries.

Religious affiliation is the sword used to fight off reasonable regulation of child care operations. Eric Miller, head of the Indiana-based Advance America, leads the opposition, wrongly claiming such rules violate church and state separation. Any attempt to bring Indiana’s laws in line with most states has been attacked by Miller, who leads an all-powerful lobbying organization in the state. Lawmakers who have sponsored or supported more stringent regulation have found themselves the target of numerous phone calls and harassment.

Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, R-Syracuse, was targeted by listeners of a Christian radio station after Miller appeared on the show to criticize an amendment she offered to a bill. She pulled it, but called Miller out publicly when the bill was watered down, telling the church leader she would not be bullied.

Indiana children need more champions like Kubacki, refusing to allow sensible regulation of profitable businesses to be beaten down by fear, intimidation and misinformation. Of 22 deaths in Indiana child care settings since 2009, 16 have occurred under the watch of unlicensed or illegal providers. It’s time to get tough on unregulated child care businesses.