Illegal Day Cares
Thousands of illegal, but
often more affordable, day
cares in Texas are left
How Texas has turned
a blind eye to the most deadly
kind of day cares
By Sean Collins Walsh and Tony Plohetski
Austin American-Statesman | Dec. 6 2018
A single mother with a full-time job at a commercial real estate firm, Miranda Partridge knew she would need help with child care for her 10-month-old son, Jaxson, but she didn’t want to send him to a large day care center.
“I just liked the idea of at-home day care,” she said, “because you always hear that at day care centers kids rarely get any individual time.”
She found a Craigslist ad for a woman named Courtney Casanas who was running a small day care business out of her home in Killeen.
Partridge checked Casanas’ background on Google and an online day care profiler, and she found no red flags. After visiting Casanas’ house, she brought Jaxson over and gradually introduced him to the new environment.
On the first day, she brought Jaxson to Casanas’ home so the two could meet. On day two, she let Jaxson spend some time with Casanas while she waited in her car. On the third, she left him for the day. Casanas took a personal interest in Jaxson, who seemed excited every day to go to her day care.
“He was a little bundle of energy,” Partridge said of her son.
Partridge agreed to pay Casanas $85 per week for Monday-through-Friday child care.
She liked Casanas. It never crossed her mind to ask whether Casanas had been approved by the state of Texas to run a day care facility.
“From what I understood, Jaxson was in a good day care, licensed and approved,” Jaxson’s father, Jeronte Reed, said in an interview. “I thought they had all the training, and if anything happened they were trained to take care of my child. For me, it was a shock that they weren’t.”
Disbanding the unit
When child advocates press for measures that could make Texas day care facilities safer, lawmakers and state agency officials frequently invoke one reason to reject the proposals: Costly regulations will drive up day care tuitions and force more parents to enroll their kids at illegal day care sites, which are typically small, cheap, in-home operations run by people who either don’t know they need to tell the state about their business or don’t bother.
But despite that rhetoric, the state has fallen down on the job in two crucial ways when it comes to making sure working parents don’t turn to these unregulated day care facilities, an American-Statesman investigation has found.
First, the agency that monitors day care centers has all but given up on proactively searching for off-the-books operations to shut them down or bring them under state regulation before tragedy occurs. Second, Texas lawmakers do less than those in all but one other state to maximize state and federal funding for subsidy programs designed to ensure low-income families can afford legal, regulated day care.
The findings are part of the American-Statesman’s yearlong investigation into these and other problems at Texas child care facilities. The newspaper read thousands of documents, researched dozens of day care safety records, analyzed existing data and built its own database to find patterns and trends.
What the Statesman found was that dangerous conditions exist inside many Texas day care facilities, leaving hundreds of children in need of medical care and nearly 90 children dead as a result of abuse or neglect since 2007. In this series, the newspaper explores problems such as day care sexual abuse, deaths, injuries, illegal operations and state oversight. The newspaper also presents potential solutions to some of those problems.
Regulated day care facilities in Texas fall into four levels of oversight, with varying levels of scrutiny based on the size and type of operation.
Illegal day care operations aren’t inspected by the state, their operators don’t go through background checks, and they are considered less safe than regulated operations.
Of the 88 child deaths at Texas day care facilities from 2007 to 2017 that were found to be caused by abuse or neglect, 42 occurred at illegal operations.
Stephanie Rubin, CEO of the nonprofit Texans Care for Children, said Texas’ approach to illegal day care operations is backwards.
“The argument that if you raise standards and oversight that that will somehow force parents into unlicensed child care is the wrong way to think about it,” she said. “Is our priority the safety of kids? If our priority is kids in high-quality learning environments, then we’ll do what it takes to make sure they are available, and that may mean some additional resources.”
Texas has the longest reported waiting lists D in the country for low-income parents seeking federal child care subsidies, according to a 2017 report, primarily because the Legislature has budgeted the bare minimum required to participate in the federal program. The lack of subsidies leads many working parents to either forgo work and stay home or find cheaper, but often unregulated child care.
To crack down on illegal operations, which number in the thousands, the Legislature in 2013 approved a special funding request from the Department of Family and Protective Services that allowed it to hire 30 investigators to search for them, rather than learn about them after complaints, injuries or deaths. Once discovered, illegal day care operations would be shut down and potentially allowed to re-open if they come into compliance.
But just four years later in September 2017, as the Health and Human Services Commission was taking control of many day care regulatory functions, the agency disbanded the investigative unit and used those positions for other purposes in the child care licensing program.
Included in the rationale for shuttering the unit: Finding illegal centers had become too difficult.
“We have providers that have gotten very clever about where they advertise illegal day cares,” said Julie Richards, director of day care field operations for the Health and Human Services Commission.
Off-the-books day care operations, however, appear easy to find. In a recent search of Craigslist child care listings in the Austin area, the Statesman quickly found numerous operations that were not included in the state’s online registries of regulated day care facilities.
Reached by phone or email, five confirmed they had not notified the state that they were in business.
Theresa Hernandez, who this summer advertised on Craigslist that she was running a day care service D out of her Elgin home with her mother, said she was unaware that she was supposed to sign up with the state because she typically looks after no more than three or four children at a time.
State law requires anyone being paid to take care of even a single unrelated child three or more days per week to be regulated. The least strenuous category of regulation, known as listed in-home day care, requires only a background check and a $20 fee and is used for people being paid to look after no more than three children who are unrelated to the operator. Listed day care facilities are not inspected by the state and aren’t subject to many of the rules that larger centers must follow.
“I haven’t heard about that,” Hernandez said. “I can check into it more.”
Hernandez added that she recently has scaled back her day care business.
State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who in 2013 chaired a subcommittee that approved funding for the investigators, said he was unaware that the agency reallocated the investigative unit positions until the Statesman informed him.
“That certainly strikes me as pretty disingenuous of what the clear intent was,” Zerwas said.
Today the agency handles illegal day care operations the way it used to: by waiting to hear about them through a complaint or incident instead of seeking them out before something goes wrong. Running an illegal day care is a class B misdemeanor, although authorities rarely pursue charges in cases that do not involve child deaths or injuries.
“It doesn’t come to light until unfortunately something bad happens,” said David McGhghy, who recently retired as a state child care investigator. “And most of the time, the really bad stuff happens in illegal operations.”
‘Where’s my son?’
On May 12, 2017, about six months after Jaxson started attending Casanas’ day care, Partridge dropped him off in the morning. That morning, he was “bubbly, ready to get up and go for the day,” she recounted in court during an August trial in Belton.
A few hours later, she got a strange call from Casanas, who said that there had been an accident involving the car seat and that Partridge should go to Metroplex Adventist Hospital in Killeen.
Panicked, Partridge left work and headed to the hospital, where she was stopped by a police officer who wanted to know if she had any bad blood with Casanas and by a hospital staffer asking her about insurance.
Frustrated and confused, she shouted, “Where’s my son?” and a nurse ushered her into Jaxson’s room.
He was lying motionless on the bed. There was a red mark around his neck. Partridge vomited.
“I said, ‘Did she f---ing choke him?’ That’s when I lost it,” Partridge said.
Casanas didn’t choke Jaxson, but she had left him and two other children alone in a bedroom to nap for about an hour, with the door closed, while she did chores, she told police. The other kids were asleep on the bed, and Jaxson had dozed off in a car seat on the bedroom floor, she said.
Casanas later admitted that she had only fastened the top buckle on the car seat, which may have allowed Jaxson to use his feet as he tried to wiggle out once he woke up and caused his neck to get tied up in the straps.
The leading cause of death at Texas day care facilities is unsafe sleep, an important focus of the training required of workers at most regulated day care operations. Courses instruct caregivers to never let babies sleep unattended and to have them sleep flat on their backs, not in an upright position like in a car seat.
When Casanas found Jaxson after hearing one of the other children crying, he was blue, she said. She called 911, and paramedics resuscitated him. But the lack of oxygen to his brain had already caused significant damage.
At the hospital, the doctors put Jaxson into a medically induced coma to preserve as much brain tissue as possible. They told Partridge they would do everything they could to save her son.
Hunting illegal day care
After lawmakers in 2013 approved $5.7 million D in funding for the Department of Family and Protective Services to hire 30 employees, the new unit produced results immediately. The agency identified 3,651 illegal day care operations in the unit’s first year, up from 1,323 the previous year.
HHSC, after it took over the child care regulatory program, said it disbanded the unit in part because new federal requirements forced the agency to direct more resources to licensing and inspection staff and away from the unit investigating illegal day care centers.
The agency focused instead on educating families and child care providers about the importance of training and safety rules as searching for illegal centers became increasingly difficult, Richards said.
Yet the unit remained effective even in its final year. The agency’s tally of newly discovered illegal day cares declined slightly over time but stayed above 3,000 per year for the four years it existed. In fiscal 2018, which ended this fall, the first full year since the unit closed, the state found only 1,611 illegal day care operations.
Zerwas said he was frustrated by the move to shut down the unit because lawmakers were trying to prevent tragedies by approving the agency’s request to create those positions.
“What bothers me about this – and it’s probably true of a lot of things in health care – you can push the envelope quite a ways down the road until something really bad happens and then, boom, a kid dies,” he said. “Legislatively, we go out about the business of trying to do something about that.”
After the Statesman inquired about the dissolution of the illegal day care unit – and despite having said that it had become less effective – the Health and Human Services Commission mentioned the unit in a separate request D to lawmakers for more money in the 2020-21 budget cycle for regulatory services. Getting more money for compliance, the agency said, will free up enough funds to bring the unit back.
“We’re pursuing funding to reinstate it. This would allow us to more proactively search for illegal childcare with dedicated staff on the task,” said Carrie Williams, a Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman. “Right now, our major focus is on investigating complaints of illegal child care and educating parents about the dangers of using illegal child care. It’s not safe and should not be used.”
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said he has since met with agency officials who told him that, if the request is approved, they will reinstate the unit.
“That request is a good indication that the agency is committed to this program, and we'll have to work together to get it included in the budget,” he said.
Watson, who sits on the budget-writing Finance Committee, said he will push his fellow lawmakers to fund the request.
“We need to re-establish that unit,” he said. “The Legislature ought to be judged by its actions here.”
Jaxson had no activity in either lobe of his brain, and the doctors told Partridge that he was in a permanent vegetative state. But because he still had some activity in his brain stem, she said, they could not rule him dead.
She eventually took him off life support. The doctors told her it would be a matter of days before he passed away.
“I had to sit for 56 days and watch my son die,” she said.
Partridge said she lost her job and home because of the amount of time she spent at the hospital.
Before the incident, she had planned to one day open a toy store called Jax, with a toy jack as the logo. After Jaxson’s death, she moved out of state.
When Casanas went on trial for criminally negligent homicide this summer, Partridge returned to Bell County and testified. Smoking outside the courthouse while the jury deliberated, she said she isn’t giving up on the dream of opening the toy store. She pulled a multicolored jack out of her pocket and said she was clutching it when she was on the stand.
Waiting for help
The most common reason people end up placing their children in unregulated day care operations is cost, said McGhghy, the former child care investigator.
“Everything comes back to money,” he said, referring to parents as well as day care operators, who can often run their businesses more cheaply if they are not following state rules such as minimum staffing levels and training requirements.
In 2018, the average cost for infant care at a licensed child care facility in Texas was $9,102 per year, or $758 a month, according to Child Care Aware of America, more than double the roughly $350 per month Casanas was paying. In Austin, it is not uncommon to find licensed child care centers that charge $1,200 per month and have lengthy waiting lists.
The federal Child Care and Development Fund, which gives money to states to help low-income families afford child care, is supposed to steer people toward high-quality centers. But in Texas, getting the federal subsidies is more difficult than in almost any other state.
In early 2017, there were 41,593 Texas families on the waiting lists for child care subsidies, according to a report by the National Women’s Law Center. That was by far the longest wait list reported in the study, although statistics for California and New York were not included. Florida came in second, with 28,835. Thirty states reported having no wait list.
Texas’ wait lists peaked at 75,262 children in May 2018, but the Texas Workforce Commission, which oversees the subsidy program, hopes that number will fall significantly as the state doles out a new infusion of federal child care money recently approved by Congress, according to Lisa Givens, a spokeswoman for the agency.
“Regardless of funding level, TWC has made efforts to prioritize resources for improving quality of the subsidized child care program as well as providing care to the maximum number of children possible,” Givens said in a statement.
The state has long been aware of the funding problem. A 2015 report by the Sunset Commission, which periodically reviews state agencies programs, said the state’s Child Care and Development Fund program “serves roughly 16 to 17 percent of all children whose parents are eligible since the funding is insufficient D to serve all those that qualify.”
Texas is one of only two states that direct the bare minimum amount of money to their federally supported child care programs, according to a Statesman analysis of the latest federal data on state participation in those programs.
Texas lawmakers have declined to add state funds to the federal program beyond their required contribution, and they have not taken advantage of opportunities to use other federal money to expand the child care subsidies program, such as transferring money from the state’s share of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, block grant. The state has also declined to participate in a separate child care service administered by the TANF program.
The only other state that took this approach in 2017 was Arizona, and lawmakers there have said they plan next year to restart a federally funded child care program it used to sponsor, which would put Texas at the bottom of the heap.
Watson said the Texas Legislature should direct more federal money to the subsidies program instead of using these resources to fill in gaps in parts of the budget that are typically state responsibilities.
“Texas absolutely needs to put more funding into this program. Economic opportunity is often out of reach for parents who don't have access to quality, affordable child care, and Texas could use much more of our federal TANF dollars to help those families pay for child care,” he said. “Instead, those in control of the Capitol have chosen to use that money to offset the state dollars needed for some critical programs, such as foster care, and some not-so-critical programs.”
The situation could improve soon because Congress this year approved a spending bill that will nearly double the Child Care and Development Block Grant, meaning all states are getting get major boosts for their child care subsidy programs. But Texas, advocates say, will still be lagging other states if it doesn’t change the way it approaches the issue.
Rubin said Texas should spend more state and federal money on the child care subsidy program if it wants to ensure parents don’t turn to off-the-books operations.
“We’ll get more child care operators that seek a license that can meet high quality standards if the payments are high enough,” Rubin said. “The illegal day cares or unlicensed day cares pop up simply because there’s a parent demand.”
“That way you know”
After being charged, Casanas pleaded not guilty and was let go on bail, meaning she was free to come and go from the courthouse during her trial. As the jury deliberated, she sat outside the courtroom with her family and said she loved Jaxson like he was her own child. She felt terribly about what happened, she said, but it was an accident, not a crime.
“Jaxson definitely always had my undivided attention. I feel like we can all be neglectful,” she told the Statesman. “Criminally negligent? I don’t think I was. Did I walk out the room with all three babies sleeping? Yes, I did, including one baby being my own because they were sleeping. But this is just a terrible accident.”
As she waited for the verdict, Casanas said she wished she had gotten licensed with the state.
“It is best to get all of the certifications and everything you need. That way you know,” Casanas said. “Because maybe if I did … I would have been taught, ‘Hey, these children can’t sleep in these types of environments.’”
The jury found Casanas guilty and sentenced her to two and a half years in prison. The sheriff’s deputies let Casanas hug her children before cuffing her and taking her away.