A relatively new state law that requires child care centers to install safety alarms in vehicles that transport children tripped up several area child care centers last year, resulting in the largest individual fines levied by state inspectors.
Overall, about one-fourth of the fines assessed to child care centers in the state's 15-county southern region in 2012 related to the law. The State Journal compiles the data each year to bring greater transparency to the state's oversight of licensed child care centers.
Last year, 46 child care providers in the southern region were fined a total of $15,900. That's up from 23 providers and $11,350 in fines in 2011. Andy Smith, a spokesman for the state Department of Children and Families, attributed the increase to regular year-to-year fluctuation.
There are 1,086 licensed child care centers in the southern region, which includes Dane County. Only a fraction are fined each year — 4 percent in 2012.
Death spurs law
The law on safety alarms was passed just weeks after the death of Jalen Knox-Perkins in 2009. The 4-month-old boy had been left alone for about four hours in a van at a Milwaukee child care center.
Now, all child care center vans and buses with seating for six or more passengers must have a safety alarm.
Most alarms work like this: When the driver turns off the ignition, a reminder tone sounds. The driver must walk to the back of the vehicle to switch off the alarm.
The intent is to prompt a visual inspection of every seat, Smith said. "If used properly, the child safety alarms could prevent a child care provider from accidentally leaving a child in a vehicle," he said.
Cardinal Country Daycare in Columbus was among the centers fined last year for violating the law. On a field trip last October, a 4-year-old child was left unattended in a center vehicle and not discovered until staff members returned after the field trip, about 90 minutes later. The center was fined $1,000, the maximum possible for a one-time incident.
Although the vehicle had a working alarm, an employee shut it off before all children exited. It was raining that day, and the employee wanted to get the children into a building as quickly as possible, said center owner Jo Johnson. In haste, the employee did things out of order, deactivating the alarm before unbuckling some of the children.
"We made an error, and thank God no one got hurt," Johnson said. "It's a good law, but no law is perfect unless people follow the policies in place."
The employee at fault was a longtime, valued staff member who remains with the center, Johnson said.
Sharlot Bogart, owner of Teddy's Place in Sun Prairie, said the vehicle-alarm law is well-intended, but she questioned whether it needs to apply to vans, given the relatively small number of children involved. Her center was fined $1,000 in October for transporting children in a van without a safety alarm.
Bogart said her center always does a verbal head count when exiting a vehicle, calling out each child's name and marking off the child on a clipboard. "That's the best way to find out if a child is still on a bus or not," she said.
The van in question had an alarm but it no longer worked, Bogart said. The van is no longer used, and the center is in the process of buying a bus, she said.
Michelle Pulvermacher of Michelle's Daycare in Middleton, also fined for using a vehicle without a safety alarm, said she only ever transports five children. Like Bogart, she questioned the need for an alarm in a small van.
"If I can't keep track of five kids and transport them somewhere, I probably shouldn't be a child care provider to start with," she said. She has since installed an alarm.
Phillip Carlson, owner of Kiddos in Lake Mills, is appealing the $1,000 fine his center received in November for not having a vehicle alarm. Carlson said the van in question is used only for transporting groceries, not children.
"It's a misunderstanding," he said.
Kids Korner in Evansville was fined $1,000 in August after a state inspector learned a van that had been used to transport children numerous times from the center to the Evansville swimming pool did not have an alarm. Center operator Jammie Fellows did not return calls for comment.