About the Investigation

The horror stories from day cares come out in bits and pieces.

A newspaper article here, a television story there. They tell the tales of children who have been injured, mistreated or killed in the very places they should have been safe.

Like the story about the three-year-old Houston boy who died after being left in a hot van. Or the Mesquite day care owner recently accused of tying up infants and toddlers in car seats for hours.

Such stories pop up often enough that the American-Statesman’s five-member investigative team started to wonder: How safe are Texas child cares?

There was no blueprint on how to investigate the issue. We could find no media outlet, state organization or advocacy group that had ever taken a comprehensive look at safety issues in the Texas day care system — a system that serves more than 1 million children every day.

But what started as a simple question led to many more. How often are children hurt? How often do they die? What does the state do to punish bad child cares? Why do so many parents send their children to illegal day cares and why does Texas do so little to find such operations?

The team dug into thousands of pages of state records, made more than 100 public information requests, and spoke with dozens of families, experts and state officials. We analyzed 40,000 day care violations and built a database showing that child care providers are often not paying attention when children get hurt and that hundreds of operations have been cited for failing to tell both parents and the state when children are hurt.

Sometimes, our records requests revealed surprising information. When the team asked the Department of Family and Protective Services to provide confirmed incidents of abuse and neglect, we were shocked to discover that there had been more than 450 incidents of sexual abuse over the last decade. State officials, who have never studied the issue, were alarmed at the scope of the problem.

A look at photo planning for the series. | American-Statesman | Andrea Ball

In other instances our requests met resistance. When the Statesman filed a request with the Department of Family and Protective Services for copies of all reports or investigations resulting from deaths at Texas day care facilities from 2013 to 2018, the agency refused.

So the Statesman's parent company, GateHouse Media, sued the agency for the information in August. GateHouse and the Department of Family and Protective Services are negotiating a potential settlement.

The investigative team paired with a photographer and a videographer tasked with bringing our sources to life, capturing their voices, faces and narratives to share with readers. We also partnered with the GateHouse innovation team to develop story-telling techniques, online design and database presentations that would best serve readers.

Ultimately, the project revealed deep cracks in a day care system that puts children at risk every day. When the team brought its findings to state officials and legislators, they quickly began laying the groundwork for changes that may make the system safer. Our hope is that legislators and changemakers will study our findings, consider the severity of the problem and take action to make day care better for Texas children.

GateHouse Media | Todd Fraser


Investigative team

Andrea Ball | American-Statesman Investigative Reporter

Eric Dexheimer | American-Statesman Investigative Reporter

Tony Plohetski | American-Statesman Investigative Reporter

Sean Collins Walsh | American-Statesman Investigative Reporter

Jeremy Schwartz | American-Statesman Projects Editor

Development and Design

Tony Elkins | GateHouse Media Director of Innovation

Tyson Bird | GateHouse Media Product Strategist

Mara Corbett | GateHouse Media Projects Designer

Aubrey O’Neal | GateHouse Media Projects Designer

Connor Leech | GateHouse Media Innovation Intern

Photo and Video

James Gregg | American-Statesman Deputy Director for Visuals

Jay Janner | American-Statesman Photographer

Ricardo Brazziel | American-Statesman Photographer

Ana Ramirez | American-Statesman Videographer

Reshma Kirpalani | American-Statesman Videographer

Data Analysis and Copy

Dan Keemahill | Data Editor

Dave Forrest | Copy Editor

Alejandro Martinez-Cabrera | Copy Editor