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Day Care: Sometimes the Signs Say No

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the parents of this sleepy burg who entrusted their children to Debbie Rees, the months since she was taken from her home in handcuffs have been a slow awakening from a dream into a stone-cold morning of reality.

The dream started wonderfully. Here was an energetic young woman licensed by the state of Illinois to look after six lucky children in her immaculate, upscale home--for $70 a week each, tops.

That was before last Aug. 27, when an infant girl in Rees’ care was bitten 20 times by an older child with whom she shared her playpen. When the law swooped down the next day, a state worker found three children under the age of 4 in a closed bedroom closet--two sleeping face down on the carpet and a panicked 10-month-old howling to get out. Eight preschoolers were playing unsupervised in a fenced-in backyard.

Only now, as Rees moves to trial today in nearby Edwardsville on 16 charges of child endangerment, are the scales finally falling from the eyes of Bethalto’s parents. And for most in this semi-rural St. Louis suburb, it’s the waking that has been the real nightmare.

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They trusted Debora Rees, 34, to provide their children a cozy home-away-from-home. How, they are asking now, could they have failed to see signs that it wasn’t so?

“You really want to believe,” said a distraught David Wiegand, whose sweet-tempered 2-year-old with Down’s syndrome spent seven months at the Rees family day care. “You turn your kid over to someone and rely on her to take care of him. We thought we did a really good job of picking a day care.”

That, said child-care expert Ellen Galinsky, is the “parental paradox.”

Working mothers and fathers love their children as deeply as other parents do, and they want the very best for them. The vast majority think they have found it in their child-care arrangements.

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But, child development experts say, most day care ranges from mediocre to miserable.

In a 1995 study, academic researchers judging the quality of day care in four states, including California, classified 86% of those they visited as less than “good,” with about three-quarters ranking in the mediocre category and 12% providing “less than minimal” care. Among those serving the youngest children, about 40% landed in the bottom category because of safety problems, poor sanitation practices, unresponsive caregivers and an absence of toys and other stimulating materials.

Painful as it may be to face--and many will not--working parents may be exposing their children to possible injury, illness, stunted intellectual growth and emotional and social impairment.

Galinsky, of the New York-based Families and Work Institute, said many parents in search of day care take on faith the judgments of friends and family and neglect to ask tough questions of their own. Seeking low cost and convenience, they sometimes unwittingly sacrifice quality.

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As many as three parents in four believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have no satisfactory alternatives to the child-care arrangements they choose, according to a survey by Galinsky’s institute. And many fear that any alternative would be higher in cost or lower in quality, or both.

In the end, said Galinsky, parents want to believe. They need to believe, she added, because their self-esteem as parents is on the line.

Said Pam Monetti, a mother who followed her sister’s lead and brought her son to Rees: “It’s easy, it’s convenient, it’s on your schedule. You don’t want to rock the boat, so you close your eyes and ears and don’t want to think about it. . . .

“How could we have put our kid here and trusted her? What kind of parents does that make us?”

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It makes us, say Galinsky and other experts, the kinds of parents who need consumer education about choosing child care. Even the strongest regulation and enforcement of child-care standards, say experts, will not work if parents do not recognize when things are amiss.

Across the country, license violations like those alleged at the Rees family day-care center are legion. No one compiles nationwide data, but a search of press coverage suggests at least dozens of cases a year.

The Rees case and similar ones around the country show that parents often feel such a deep investment in their child-care providers that they cannot acknowledge the truth, even when their children’s well-being is at stake. Kris Russell, a 36-year-old mother of two in Plano, Texas, knows all too well about turning a blind eye to her children’s day care. Last June, she picked up her son, now almost 3, and 1-year-old daughter, Emma, at the handsome day-care home her family had used for 18 months. Emma had been sick and vomiting for weeks, and Russell reluctantly took her to an emergency room when she seemed to have trouble standing.

There she got harrowing news: Doctors told her that Emma appeared to have been held upside down and shaken violently. Both of her legs had been broken, her skull had been fractured and she had serious bleeding in her brain.

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Emma’s caregiver faces two counts of injury to a child. Emma, now 2, is doing fine, although she faces a strong potential to develop learning disabilities.

“I really, truly wanted to believe it was an accident, but the doctors kept saying, ‘No, no,’ ” said Russell. “I was really in denial.”

At the ABC Daycare Center in Fairfax, Va., parents expressed a similar reluctance to revisit their child-care choice even after a 14-month-old girl was left asleep in a crib in January after the center’s owner locked up and went home. In fact, several parents continued to defend the center publicly. In spite of local headlines and a state-issued warning posted prominently on the center’s front door, the majority of parents kept bringing their children there until the owners shut the center in February by mutual agreement with the state of Virginia.

Similarly, in Bethalto, many parents acknowledged profoundly troubling signs even as they steadfastly supported Rees’ center.

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Laura Huette is one. Huette insists she would take her 4-year-old son, Mark, back to Rees “in a heartbeat” if Rees’ home day care were open. “Had I questioned anything, he’d not have been there,” said Huette, a special education teacher in the nearby public schools.

Huette described herself as the kind of nosy mother who wandered through Rees’ house freely and asked many questions. She acknowledged that the reported 19 children in Rees’ care on the day a state worker investigated was “way too many,” but she said she believed Rees’ assurances that she had intended to begin turning children away.

Commenting on the state social worker’s discovery of three children in a closet, Huette said flatly: “It couldn’t be true. But I wasn’t there, and it wasn’t my kid. You try not to think about it because you start questioning yourself, whether you missed something. I don’t know. Maybe I did.”

Like virtually all the parents who brought their children to Rees, David Wiegand now said he had suspicions, that he heard stories, that he harbored doubts. But for each observation and every question, there was either a charitable explanation or a ready answer from the effervescent Rees. In the face of such reassurances, Wiegand said, his will to believe overwhelmed his doubts.

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“The little red flags didn’t go up,” he said. “Looking back now, yeah, there’s a lot of things I should have recognized.”

There were, first and foremost, the ever-present knots of children. At one time or another, they struck every parent as more than one woman could handle. Some, like Kathi Spears, whose 5-year-old son went to Rees for four months, assumed she had occasional help. Others assumed some of the older children were neighborhood friends of Rees’ two school-age children.

Several parents acknowledge now that they waited meekly in the foyer or living room--and often for long minutes--for Rees to acknowledge their arrival. She was frequently vacuuming the spotless carpeting throughout the home and sometimes sunning herself in the backyard, they remember now.

Many, like the Wiegands, believed Rees’ chirpy assurances that the seemingly large numbers of children were a momentary product of tag-team parents who were late in picking up a child or early in dropping one off.

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“Shift work, shift work!” Rees would say, rolling her eyes and fluttering her hands. She would promise to be back down to six within the hour.

Glenn Canania, whose preschool boys logged two and three years with Rees, found reassurance in the orderliness of the place. “It appeared she had things under control,” he said. Still a defender of Rees, he said he would let her baby sit his sons today, but not in a day-care situation where she could “go back to her old tricks again.”

But there were also signs of neglect that many parents are now mournfully toting up, asking themselves why they were so trusting.

Parents now recall lasting diaper rashes. They tell of infants prone to ear infections who repeatedly were left sucking on propped-up bottles while lying down--a practice that, pediatricians warn, can cause painful inflammation of the inner ear. They ask themselves why Rees insisted that infant car seats be left every morning, even though she never drove the children anywhere.

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Many think back about children emerging from Rees’ day care so hungry and thirsty that drives home were regularly punctuated by a stop for food and drink.

Then there were the older children’s claims that Rees would not let them inside the house on nice days, even to get a glass of water or go to the bathroom. There were children coming home with sunburns so bad they required medication. There were little boys who took to urinating in their backyards, telling their parents, “This is where we do it at Debbie’s.”

There was the television that was always on, no matter when a parent came to the house. And there was a house so uncannily clean and children so improbably compliant that one might well have asked whether this was Wonderwoman, as one mother enthused, or Joan Crawford in Mary Poppins’ clothes.

Some parents found the cleanliness of Rees’ home suspicious. “The house was always spotless, and that should have been a red flag to me,” said Deb Rose, a mother of three who brought two of her children to Rees’ home. “Instead I thought, ‘She’s wonderful!’ It should have told me it was not a normal place for children. There was not one toy in sight. Not one.”

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Added Michelle Bruneaugh, who brought her daughter, Megan, to Rees for about three years: “We thought she was Wonderwoman!” Now, however, Bruneaugh remembers Megan’s diaper rash that cleared up only during vacations, the baby formula that lasted far too long, the toys that never seemed to be out where the children could play with them.

And there was the children’s peculiar attention-seeking behavior at home, from head-rocking infants to children who insisted on sleeping under their beds. Were these typical children acting out, or stressed and neglected kids crying for help?

One clue: Virtually all the worrisome behavior disappeared within weeks after the children left the Rees home. So has one child’s eczema that a pediatrician put down to stress. And so did the chronic diaper rash that Michelle Bruneaugh had attributed to her child’s sensitive skin.

But for most parents, the most anguishing recollections are of heart-rending morning protests from children barely able to verbalize their distress as their parent drove them to Rees’ handsome brick home in Bethalto’s nicest subdivision.

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“Nathan would cry all the time: ‘I not go to Debbie’s anymore,’ ” recounted Debra Hormann of her elder son, one of her two children found in the bedroom closet on the fateful day before Rees was arrested. “I thought that it was normal, that he just didn’t want me to leave him.”

At night, she added, both of her sons would cling and cry with a desperation she now finds frightening. Nicholas, then an infant, ran through a range of medications to help him sleep through the night. Nathan suffered from eczema and slept under his bed with his head sticking out.

“I never gave it any thought there was something going on there, really,” Hormann said. “Not until my mom said something’s wrong. I didn’t want to believe her. I blew it off. You can imagine how I feel. I just blew it off.”

Like many parents in this largely working-class community, Hormann felt she was in an impossible situation as her suspicions mounted. A full-time student finishing a program in dental assistance, Hormann felt her mother was criticizing not her choice of day-care options but the decision to work itself.

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Hormann said: “I told her, ‘How would you know? You got to stay home! I’ve got some other woman raising my kids for me: They have a right to be cranky and irritable, and so do I!’ I was on the defensive.”

Deb Rose remembers the protests of her older son, Brett, then barely able to speak. Rose said she dismissed Brett’s complaints--that Rees didn’t feed them, that she bopped him on the head with a plastic baseball bat--as childhood fabrications. Like many parents who did the same, she now wishes she had trusted her kids.

“What were my children thinking every morning when I drove them to this house?” Rose asked.

She answered her own question: “ ‘My mother is supposed to protect me, and she’s driving me to this horrible woman’s house?’ How can you get past that?

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“It was very difficult, even when it was right there in front of my face, to accept the fact that someone would do that. I have to believe she wasn’t that bad. Otherwise I couldn’t live with myself.”


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