Choosing where to send a child for daycare can be one of the most difficult and expensive decisions a parent can make.
Dozens of daycare facilities in the metro have been cited with serious safety and care issues, some of which are still open for business and funded in part with Missouri tax dollars.
Shelley Blecha's son, Nathan, was just three months old when he died in 2007 at an unlicensed daycare south of St. Louis. The Missouri mother gets choked up when she recalls having to break the news of Nathan's death to his older brother.
"One of the first things he asked my husband was, ‘Daddy, why can't you fix him?'" Blecha said.
Five years after her son died, Blecha says Missouri is still failing to protect its children.
"Someone needs to speak up for them," Blecha said. "And that's what I'm trying to do."
Since Nathan's death, 67 other children have died in Missouri daycares. Like her son, the vast majority of the deaths occurred in unlicensed care.
Those little lost lives have Blecha begging state legislators to pick up and pass "Nathan's law," a measure that would increase the state's power to oversee home daycares and shut down the dangerous ones.
"I'm going to keep fighting, until someone realizes how important it is," Blecha said.
KCTV5 filed an open records request for a year's worth of substantiated child care complaints from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
While the majority of the 700 state-monitored child care facilities in the metro provide quality child care, 69 centers and homes were caught breaking the rules – cited for things like physical discipline, unsanitary conditions and dangerous environments.
For example, the state put a Kansas City, MO, church's "Grow in Peace" child care on probation for putting children under the age of five in a closet for punishment.
A child told investigators, he would cry because it was dark in the closet. According to state records, the center claims to have addressed all the issues.
In Cass County, Dana Gaston's home daycare receives child subsidies.
Her business earned three state violations for a dangerous play area because of an unfenced pool, violent dogs on the premises and a felon living at her home. Among the changes the state required Gaston to make included the felon to stay away during business hours.
State records show, "Definitely Learning Child Care" in Kansas City had more than one dozen violations spread over spread over five months.
Despite those issues, the state did not pull that license until gunmen were spotted in the parking lot, threatening to kill children. The incident was sparked by a fight between staff.
Child Care Aware of Missouri is a non-profit group that helps parents find quality daycare. The group's most recently published survey on daycares ranked Missouri 46 out of the 50 states.
"It's an uphill battle, because we're kind of anti-regulation state," Child Care Aware of Missouri chief executive officer Dr. L. Carol Scott said. "Part of the reason we're not near the top of the list, is because we don't license all of our child care."
The lack of licensing translates into 4,500 daycares with roughly 35,000 children operating without any state oversight.
Scott says Missouri has a lot of ground to make up before it can compete with other states for quality child care. But she is quick to point out some changes being made.
"They are making good progress. I want to give them credit for that," Scott said.
The biggest improvement, according to Scott, is a recently-launched state web page where parents can search for "new" daycare inspection reports.
Admittedly, it is a big step. However, any parent who wants to see violation reports filed before the website was created must contact the state and file a formal records request.
Blecha is nowhere near being satisfied.
The mother who lost so much says it's time for legislators to wake up and protect Missouri children.
One month into the 2013 legislative session, she's still searching for a lawmaker to back her bill.
"If we don't do anything about it, it's not going to get any better," Blecha said. "These kids are not getting a good start in life, or being able to live their life."
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