LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A mother grieving the death of her 13-month-old daughter hopes to educate parents and child care providers about the dangers of broken equipment.
Mazie Joan Valenta, age 1, died April 25 after she stopped breathing at an unlicensed day care operated by Debbie Keyes.
“I got a phone call, and her day care provider let me know there had been a terrible accident and she didn’t wake up from her nap,” said Stephanie Valenta, Mazie’s mother. “I hung up the phone and just started freaking out at my work.”
Valenta and her husband raced to the hospital, but medical staff told them they couldn’t save Mazie.
The child care provider, Keyes, put Mazie down for her nap in a crib she knew was broken, according to court documents.
“Mazie pretty much choked to death on a broken piece of her crib,” said Valenta. “It was pretty sickening to know that she knew about it and didn’t do anything about it. I have two pack ‘n plays collecting dust in my garage that she could have used, if she just would’ve asked.”
Valenta wishes she had checked the crib where Mazie slept at day care.
“Of course, we now look back and we should have known what she was sleeping in, we should have taken that initiative and we didn’t, and I just wish we would’ve known,” said Valenta. “My husband could have fixed that crib in five minutes.”
Valenta said she knew Keyes’ day care was unlicensed, but never saw any red flags.
“We didn’t know what came with licensing,” said Valenta.
What Valenta didn’t know is that licensed providers, as well as registered ministries who accept CCDF federal vouchers, face regular inspections from the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.
“Equipment is an issue, because we know children can get hurt very quickly if the toys, cribs, high chairs are not working or if the staff isn’t using them appropriately,” said Nicole Norvell, Director of FSSA’s Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning.
Norvell emphasized their inspectors routinely check child care facilities for broken or hazardous equipment, as well as age-appropriate toys, seats and cribs.
“I think moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas can also assist in that and making sure that when they’re there, they’re looking to see what their children are sleeping in, what that equipment looks like, and then ask some questions,” said Norvell.
Mazie’s death is not the first time a child has passed away due to equipment being used incorrectly at a day care.
Conor Tilson, 5 months, died at an unlicensed Carmel day care in 2013 in a broken portable crib.
Taliah Brigham, 10 months, died in April 2016 after she was found incorrectly strapped into a car seat at a Speedway child care provider.
Call 6 Investigates dug through hundreds of FSSA records and found, despite recent deaths, the state continues to cite child care facilities for broken equipment.
“I think when we see these tragedies, it’s because the equipment is not being used appropriately,” said Norvell.
Norvell explained that the state gives a provider an opportunity to fix the problem, and if they don’t, the state has a number of options including probation and license or registration revocation.
Records show the state revoked the registration for the L.I.F.E. Daycare & Preschool Ministry in Indianapolis after inspectors found broken playground equipment, as well as a broken light shield, mirror, faucet and other issues including missing criminal history checks.
Norvell explained the law only allows for an emergency closure in a few specific instances including the death or serious injury of a child, filthy conditions, or building damage from a natural disaster.
Norvell said it’s also not their goal to shut down child care providers who’ve had violations.
The state currently 4,567 child care providers, including 622 licensed centers and 2,711 licensed homes.
FSSA staff and inspectors conducted more than 10,000 visits to child care facilities in 2015, records show.
The agency issued four emergency closures in 2015, records show, and issued hundreds of enforcement orders to providers.
“Our job isn’t just to go out and police, it’s really to support them and help them get better,” said Norvell. “We want to be fair.”
As for Debbie Keyes in Lafayette, FSSA issued a cease and desist letter following Mazie’s death, accusing her of operating illegally.
“The Tippecanoe County Department of Child Services reported to our agency that you were caring for 10 unrelated children and 2 related children on 4/25/2016 when a serious incident occurred at your home,” read the letter to Keyes.
If a child care provider cares for six or more children unrelated to the provider, they need a license, according to FSSA.
Keyes is still caring for children, but is now operating legally, according to FSSA.
Keyes is criminally charged with reckless supervision and operating without a license.
Her trial is scheduled for October 27.
Keyes and her attorney have not responded to requests for comment.
Stephanie Valenta wishes she had more information about licensing, as well as equipment safety, before she sent Mazie to day care.
“Maybe someone who came into (Keyes’) home would have checked these cribs to make sure they were safe for children,” said Valenta.
As the days pass without Mazie, Valenta is finding the strength to go on for her older daughter, Morgan.
Valenta and her husband are also expecting another baby girl this January, Melody Joy.
“God knew what we needed in this time of tragedy and darkness, and it was light,” said Valenta.
Valenta finds comfort in the toys and clothes that still smell like Mazie.
“She was literally an angel, funny, she had a hilarious personality,” said Valenta. “She was the biggest lover, always happy, always smiling.”
She hopes sharing her daughter’s story will save lives and have other parents checking on their child’s day care.
“We talk to her, and just tell her we’re there and we love her,” said Valenta. “We just wish it didn’t have to be that way.”
HOW TO CHECK A CHILD CARE FACILITY:
- Plug in a provider's name to ChildCareFinder.IN.Gov and look for complaints, inspection reports and any pending enforcements
- Use your eyes and ears when visiting. Are they following safe sleep? Is equipment working? Are children strapped into their high chairs?
- Drop by the child's day care unexpectedly during the day. What is seen at pickup and drop off may be very different than what's happening during the middle of the day
- Ask to see the provider's license or registration, which should be posted in a public area. If the provider is on probation, it will say so on the license, along with the reasons why.
- Ask to see a copy of the day care's discipline policy. Corporal punishment is not illegal in the state of Indiana
- Ask what their current child-to-staff ratio is. Experts say accidents are more likely to happen when staffers are watching a lot of children.
- Ask if the provider is part of the state's voluntary rating system, called Paths to Quality. The state said this helps guarantee they're meeting and/or exceeding licensing requirements regardless of type of day care
- If you use an unlicensed facility, know they do not have to submit to background checks, CPR training, safe sleep training and other requirements. Ask to see proof your provider has completed these.
- For more information, go to ChildCareIndiana.org