SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- It's every working parents' dilemma: How to pick a daycare provider they can trust. But a state license is no guarantee your child will be safe.
The smell of a baby blanket brings some comfort to Jennifer Ales. It's been almost four years since she lost her one-year-old daughter, Paige. "I got a phone call from Pam, saying there had been an accident," she said.
It happened at Paige's in-home daycare. "My heart just dropped. I was thinking maybe she cut herself or she fell," said Jennifer. At the hospital she discovered the worst: Her baby was dead. But it would be months before she and her partner Finn would learn why.
According to the coroner's report, the toddler died of "mechanical asphyxia", restrained in an infant car seat inside the day care, a violation of state law, and left unattended for 30-45 minutes while she struggled to breathe. Neglect, as defined by the state.
The day after Paige's death the daycare shut down and the provider disappeared.
And it turns out the state licensed daycare was repeatedly cited in the months leading up to Paige's death. Type A citations, the most serious kind, ranging from overcapacity to unsanitary and hazardous conditions.
One of the last citations, just a month before she died, involved Paige.
"A licensing evaluator specifically observed Paige Lugar, placing plastic Easter egg halves into her mouth for a period of five minutes, while she was left completely unsupervised and unattended," said Maurice Fitzgerald, who is suing the state on the family's behalf.
Fitzgerald says, not only did the state inspector fail to notify Paige's parents of the serious citation, or use the agency's authority to immediately shut the facility down, but the inspector didn't report the violations to the county welfare agency or local law enforcement, as required by the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act.
"Instead of reporting as she should have, she documented her file, she handed the licensee -- the owner of the facility -- something she requested she post, and then she moved on to her next job," said Fitzgerald.
The lead local sergeant testified that if she had reported the violations he would have shut the facility down before Paige died.
Officials at the Department of Social Service's Community Care Licensing Division denied our request for an interview. But in a phone call, a spokesperson told us that inspectors don't have to report neglect or abuse of children in daycare to local authorities unless a day care provider is neglecting or abusing their own child, even though the state's own training manual states: "Neglect must be reported if the perpetrator is a person responsible for the child's welfare."
"It's in the statute, it couldn't be clearer," said social worker Lucy Marquart. She says the reporting law is there for a purpose.
"It is supposed to trigger sharing of information among agencies that are out there to protect children," said Marquart.
But apparently that's not how daycare inspectors in California are trained. In a video deposition, the state inspector for Paige's daycare explains, "They didn't investigate. We investigate, so we didn't report to Child Protective Services. It was just more how the agencies worked."
With no one claiming responsibility for Paige's death, her parents hope her death will be a wake-up call that oversight is needed.
"It's been four years, I am hoping that there is an awareness, she had a short time on this earth and I am starting to believe she had a purpose," said Jennifer Ales.
The state is not required by law to personally notify parents of citations involving their children. They leave that up to the day care provider. However, the state does post inspections online and parents can sign up for inspection email alerts.
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