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How to keep the kids safe, in day care or with a Saturday-night sitter

By Diana Burrell
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When I went back to work part-time, my husband and I hired Dawn to care for our baby, then 18 months old. Dawn seemed the perfect sitter: She and Oliver were crazy about each other, and she had plenty of experience with other kids who adored her.

Then one day she mentioned having a lead foot behind the wheel. Since the only cars they'd been driving together were plastic, this hadn't been a problem. Yet it made me nervous, because up till then, I would have handed Oliver -- and my car keys -- over to her for a trip to the playground. This revelation hit home: It's easy for parents to become lulled into a false sense of security, even if they've checked references and double-checked child-care credentials. While cases of abuse by a sitter are rare, none of us wants to be that case. Fortunately, there are crucial ways you can lower your child's risk of harm.

What to do before you decide: Get independent verification. Double-check all the information a prospective day-care provider gives you, says Erika Karres, author of "Violence Proof Your Kids Now." If the center is licensed, call the state bureau to make sure the license is current and ask about any complaints the provider has had in the past. If the provider says she is accredited, make sure that's the case. Unless a provider has lied about it, lack of accreditation doesn't have to be a deal breaker -- applying for accreditation is voluntary, and many small, home-based caregivers don't bother. Without it, though, you have one safety check fewer, so additional sleuthing on your part is important. Check references, but don't just go with the ones you're handed. "Chat with the parents you see dropping off their kids," Karres says. Find out why they go there -- and what they don't like about the center.

Take a good look around. Noticing details about a day-care center or family-care provider's home can help you make an informed decision, says Karres. Look at everything from the floor's condition to how the house looks from outside. Is there plenty of room for kids to move around? Do you see workers washing their hands? Are there smoke alarms and safety gates? Do they schedule monthly safety drills, or is there too much trash and not enough lighting? Don't assume that a perfectly neat room means a well-run operation. "What's going to happen if your kid throws a bowl of spaghetti?" says Pamela Rowse, president of the Kierra Harrison Foundation for Child Safety, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Instead, think about whether the kids look comfortable just being kids. Find out how many staff members there are, too. Experts recommend a ratio of at least one adult to every four babies, and two adults in a classroom of up to 18 2- and 3-year-olds. These aren't state or national requirements, though, so if the numbers don't match up exactly, you'll have to decide if the ratio still seems reasonable.

Ask about security measures. How does the day care supervise and control dropoffs and pickups? Who has access to your child? When a father tried -- unsuccessfully -- to abduct his 3-year-old from Judith Katz's day-care center in suburban Chicago, she realized she needed to improve security. Now all four of her Minee Subee early childhood centers are equipped with finger-print scanners to limit who gets into -- and out of -- the school. Make sure there's a system in place that you feel is satisfactory.

Find out about dropping in. Ask the owner if she minds unexpected visits from you. Red flags should be waving if she answers yes or she says you can't drop by between certain hours. You should never be denied access to your child.

How to keep your child safe: Join forces with other parents. Many pairs of eyes are better than one. Agree with other moms and dads that on one day, you'll drop by the day care unannounced during lunch, and the next day, another parent will arrive early for pickup.

Listen to your child. Even toddlers can give you feedback on day care. Encourage them to tell you what they've done during their day. Try "What was your favorite thing about today? What was your least favorite thing about today?" What do their facial expressions reveal? Out-of-the-ordinary behavior at home like tantrums, hitting, or sudden changes in personality can signal a problem. Talk to the day-care provider about it first (has she noticed these problems? what does she think is causing them?), but also talk to your pediatrician.

What to do before you hire: Write up a thorough job description. This is important, whether you're looking for a full-time caregiver or a neighborhood teenager to play with your child for a few hours in the afternoon. You can then ask each candidate if she can do the tasks on the list with or without assistance (such as needing a back brace to lift your toddler, for instance) says Bob King, an employment attorney and owner of Legally Nanny, an Irvine, California, firm that gives advice to household employers. Ask other questions about the job duties, too. For instance, if one of her responsibilities will be to drive your child to school, you could say, "Sometimes Charlie hates to get into his car seat. Have you had to deal with that before? What did you do?" (And when you do a background check, make sure that driving records are included.)

Require a medical exam. You have the right to ask the candidate to take a medical exam and/or be tested for illegal drugs as a condition of employment. This could have saved the life of Michelle and William Puckett's son, Bryan. Despite posing health questions to the registered nurse they hired to care for their 11-month-old, the Winchester, Kentucky, couple didn't discover the truth about her medical history until after their son's death from hyperthermia. (The sitter left him, and her own son, strapped into the back seat of her car while she ran errands.) During her trial, the Pucketts were horrified to learn she had a history of disorienting "seizures." Says Michelle: "If we'd had access to her medical history, Bryan would've never set foot in her home."

Listen to your gut. If it doesn't sit right with you when a candidate is hard to reach or has to reschedule your interview, move on. Your instincts can also tell you what's right. Lisa Bain, a Parenting staffer, thought she'd found the perfect caregiver after a long interview but was dismayed when the woman's day-care-center employer had nothing positive to say. So Bain asked for the names of parents at the day-care center and called many of them. They raved about the woman, and she wound up working for Bain's family for more than three years.

Read body language. During the interview, you notice your top candidate looks bored with your questions, or you catch her rolling her eyes. No, you aren't going overboard -- you need to move on to another candidate, says Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council, in Washington, D.C. "You want someone who's philosophically in sync with you," she says.

How to keep your child safe: Offer your support. Your sitter should know that you can be called at any time for any reason. If she knows she can reach out when she's reached her limit, your child will be safer.

Treat caregivers with respect. Building a strong bond goes a long way toward making sure your sitter gives her best to the job. You don't need to become best friends (you're still her employer), but learning more about who she is can help her feel like she matters. The bottom line: Treat her like a professional.

Stay in the loop. As with day-care centers, drop in unexpectedly. Urge neighbors, family, friends, and other parents to keep their eyes and ears open, too. Tim Barton (not his real name) of Charlotte, Vermont, was called by a concerned mother at his 1-year-old's music class, who told him that she and other parents had witnessed Barton's nanny pushing the boy into his car seat so roughly that he was crying. "We're so grateful to those who spoke up," he says. "We let the nanny go."

If good care goes bad: Don't make or accept excuses. This is another area in which to listen to your gut. When Barton and his wife were around their son and his nanny, all seemed well. But when the couple called home during the day, the phone was frequently busy. "We let ourselves believe that during those phone calls, the baby was napping," he says. If you sense something is off, deal with it instead of explaining it away.

Craft a Plan B. As soon as you suspect a problem, you need to get your child out of the situation at once. That means always having a safe temporary option. Plan B can be a grandparent, a neighbor, or another sitter, but make sure it provides the level of safety you wanted with Plan A.

Take a stand for all kids. "If you pull your child out of a day care because you're genuinely concerned about his welfare, make it safe for the children left behind," urges Rowse. File a report with your state's childcare licensing bureau, or go to law-enforcement authorities. Says Rowse: "There are too many parents who say, 'If I'd just done something.'"

Diana Burrell is the coauthor of The Renegade Writer's Query Letters That Rock, out next month.

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Copyright 2006 PARENTING magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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When choosing day care, look at everything from the floor's condition to how the center or house looks from outside.


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