Unlicensed Indiana day cares investigated

(Provided Photo/WLFI)

TIPPECANOE COUNTY, Ind. (WLFI) — In recent years, several young lives have been taken due to broken equipment and negligence at unlicensed in-home day cares. Now, the state is cracking down. In a special report, News 18 shares one mother’s painful story warning parents of some of the dangers.

The loss of a child is a pain that will never blow over.

Stephanie Valenta can now only see her sweet Mazie’s smile through photographs.

“That smile, those eyes, those eyelashes,” Valenta said as she looked through pictures of her daughter, Mazie. “This was the outfit that we buried her in – her jammies – so she could be safe and warm.”

Valenta lost her 13-month-old on April 25, 2016, when she stopped breathing at an unlicensed day care, operated by Deborah Keyes.

“I got the worst phone call of my entire life around 4 o’clock, letting me know that there had been a terrible accident at day care and that Mazie didn’t wake up,” said Valenta.

Keyes told police that she laid Mazie down for a nap in a broken crib. Autopsy results show her shirt got stuck on a broken piece and she suffocated.

“That’s what we’re living with now,” said Valenta.

She said she knew Keyes’ day care was unlicensed.

“We didn’t really know licensing versus nonlicensing,” she said. “And what licensing for her in our situation could have done.”

Valenta now knows licensing could have saved her daughter’s life.

“They would have checked her equipment,” said Valenta. “We didn’t know that, that was something that they did.”

But Mazie’s wasn’t the only life that has been cut short.

Since January 2014, there have been 10 child deaths in illegally operating child care homes in Indiana. The state has also issued 61 cease and desist letters in the past three years.

“I know at the state, our goal is that zero deaths occur in child care, but we can only control those that are regulated,” said Victoria Matney, with the Child Care Resource Network.

Matney said licensed day cares face regular inspections from the state – which routinely check cribs, toys and equipment. Whereas, unlicensed day cares don’t undergo any inspections. Licensed providers also have to pass background checks and drug tests.

The state is cracking down on unlicensed day cares by going to door-to-door, urging facilities to become licensed. That was the case for Shirley Calhoon, the owner of Shirley’s Small Fry’s.

“I didn’t know that you were supposed to be licensed,” said Calhoon. “Somebody knocked on my door and told me that you were, so I went about the process of getting it started.”

Calhoon’s business has now been a licensed in-home day care for the last 28 years.

“It is time-consuming. But when you realize what it’s for, most people are willing to go through that,” said Calhoon.

She knows that covering her bases helps protect her kids, because the thought of losing one is unbearable.

“It makes me more aware. It makes you more aware of what could happen even though you are doing all of the right things,” said Calhoon. “That it could happen, that a child could die in your presence and that would be horrifying to me. I couldn’t do it.”

Valenta is now trying to spread the same message. She’s hoping her story will warn other parents about the dangers of broken equipment.

“You’ll never get this small part of your life in your kid’s childhood back,” said Valenta. “It goes so fast.”

Valenta continues to keep Mazie close each day, while also staying strong for her two other daughters.

To search for child care providers within the state and determine if facilities are licensed or unlicensed and its ratings, visit the child care finder website.

Another website helps parents find child care providers and offers free services. Visit the child care resource network site for more information.

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