After a child’s death, parents grapple with second-guesses

After a child’s death, parents grapple with second guesses

Three-month-old Logan Guralny died in an unregulated day-care home. His parents still wonder why.

Published on August 31, 2014

With two young boys and two hectic careers in the Navy, Christina and Stephen Guralny depended on day care. She was a 35-year-old surgical technician, and he was a dental specialist, six years her junior. They had a sandy-haired toddler named Dalton who took after his father and a new baby named Logan who had his mother’s blue eyes. He squealed and pumped his legs when he was happy. “His little motorcycle kick,” Christina called it.

The Guralnys had spent a long time looking for the right child-care provider. They visited homes and centers across the Hampton Roads area, asking about providers’ training and references.

CHILDREN AT RISK:

Unregulated Day Care in Virginia

Part Two | Read Part One

 

ABOVE: Pictures of Logan in the family room of the Guralnys’ Suffolk home. Logan is one of at least 43 children who have died in unregulated child-care settings in Virginia since 2004, according to a Washington Post investigation. (Jay Westcott for The Washington Post)

Some were too expensive for their modest salaries. Others were too far away. A facility for military families had a waiting list of more than six months. They were already paying $295 a week to send Dalton to a private day-care center, but they couldn’t afford to send Logan there as well.

One day the Guralnys noticed a posting on Craigslist about an in-home day care in Portsmouth. Dawn Robilotta’s business, which she called This Little Light, cost only $150 a week per child. When they visited, Dawn, a 45-year-old mother of three, appeared to have a calming touch with Logan.

Six weeks later at Dawn’s home, on Jan. 9, 2012, Logan was found facedown in his portable playpen, pale and lifeless. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Police said the 3-month-old infant had been laid down to sleep on his stomach, a position banned since 2010 in Virginia’s licensed day-care homes because of the risk of suffocation and one that national health experts have campaigned against since the 1990s.

The medical examiner classified the death as “sudden unexpected infant death.”

Investigations did not find that Dawn had broken any laws or neglected or abused Logan. The Washington Post made repeated attempts to sit down with Dawn to discuss what happened that day. She declined those requests but provided a written statement and granted several brief phone interviews.

She told The Post that she placed Logan on his back, not his stomach. She said his death was “unavoidable” and has left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. “Since Logan’s death I have had recurrent, intrusive thoughts of his death,” Dawn said. “I relive his death 100 times a day.”

Only in the aftermath did Logan’s parents learn that Dawn was not required to have a state license to care for children. In Virginia, unlicensed child-care providers can watch up to five children not related to them.

Logan is one of at least 43 children who have died in unregulated child-care settings in Virginia since 2004, according to a Post investigation. About half of the deaths were sleep-related. The unregulated operations in Virginia — estimated by experts to provide day care for nearly 200,000 children — help address a shortage of affordable space at licensed providers. But the unregulated undergo no mandatory training and no background checks and are never inspected.

The Guralnys still question what happened to Logan, along with the choices they made in searching for day care.

“I didn’t know what questions to ask,” Christina said. “We learned the hard way.”

In the search for certainty and someone to blame, Logan’s death provides no easy answers.

Searching, waiting

The Navy brought the Guralnys to Virginia. Christina grew up in Columbia, Mo., and enlisted in 1997, swayed by a smooth-talking recruiter dressed in a crisp white uniform. Stephen, from Upstate New York, joined in 2006, inspired by his brother’s military service. They met in 2007 when Stephen boarded the USS Theodore Roosevelt while it was docked in Norfolk. She was naturally gregarious. He was reserved, but his good looks and tall stature caught her eye.

They worked side-by-side in the medical suite and married in 2009.

They lived in a 900-square-foot World War II-era home in Chesapeake. Stephen’s 20-minute commute took him to the naval dental clinic on Sewells Point, a small peninsula in Norfolk. Christina drove every day to the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, about four miles away.

Shortly before Dalton was born in February 2010, Stephen set out to buy a used pickup truck with space for a car seat. As he scrolled through Craigslist, he noticed the day-care ads. “My husband stumbled onto it by accident,” Christina said of the ads. “It was convenient.”

The Guralnys spent weeks researching dozens of caregivers they found online. They visited some homes but were appalled by the conditions. “This one lady had pet feces and stains all over the carpet,” Christina said.

At the recommendation of a friend, they placed Dalton in La Petite Academy in Portsmouth. It was a large, state-licensed facility where infants slept in a room with a big bay of windows. It also cost twice as much as most places on Craigslist: $295 a week per child.

When Christina became pregnant with Logan, she learned about a much cheaper, subsidized day-care program run by the military, the New Gosport Child Development Center. If they could get in, their bill for Dalton would drop to about $85 a week.

There are 14 Navy Child Development Centers in the Hampton Roads region, with space for more than 1,950 children from 6 weeks to 5 years old. Additionally, the Navy has 116 certified at-home providers in the area who can keep up to six children in their homes.

But the wait would be at least six months, Christina said she was told. They said they looked into another military program that provided subsidies for private day care but became frustrated by delays and gave up.

“You think this shouldn’t be this hard, but it is,” she said.

Decoding day-care advertisements

It is common for parents to use the Internet in their search for in-home day cares in Virginia, but the online world of day-care advertisements can be a confusing landscape. The following examples include excerpts from real in-home day-care advertisements on Craigslist featuring ambiguous language.

I have spaces available. I have a degree in Early Childhood Education as well as a business license. My home is smoke free and very clean.

Explained: Some providers will mention a business license, which refers to a permit that allows individuals to operate a commercial enterprise within their home. The business license is not the same as a state license to care for children.

* I'm a licensed CNA (In good standing with Va State Board Of Nursing)
***** Can give license number to look up!

* CPR and First Aid certified ( took class May 6th)

Explained: CNA stands for certified nursing assistant. While it might be valuable information for a parent who has a special-needs child, a CNA license is not a license to care for children in Virginia.

*Over 25 years of experience
*Certificate Of Registration Voluntary Family Day Care
*CPR Certified

Explained: This program allows providers to voluntarily register as caregivers for children. In a way, it’s kind of a middle ground between being unlicensed or licensed. Caregivers must undergo background checks and get a site visit, but the homes are not licensed and are not subject to routine inspections.

I love children and am looking for playmates for my little ones as well. I have a big back yard nice quiet neighborhood lots of toys and swingset sandbox little pool to cool off in.

Explained: Know the safety protocols in place for any water on the property. The state regulations for licensed home day cares state: “‘Drowning hazards’ have no minimum depth of water and include water features such as waterfall or goldfish ponds. A small child can drown in 30 seconds in as little as 2 inches of water.”

We are:
- State Licensed
- FDA approved
- CPR/First Aid Certified

Explained: The Food and Drug Administration regulates many things but not child care, so it is unclear what part of the day care would be subject to FDA approval. The provider may have meant the Agriculture Department, which subsidizes healthy food for children in day care.

if we go swimming at the pool :). If you need references I have plenty of them, i dont have a si gle complaint from any parents as of yet and i am very proud of that. Once you have decided that this is the right place for your little one

Explained: If a caregiver is unlicensed, this claim is very hard to investigate. If a caregiver is licensed, any inspections that are triggered by a complaint to the state will be noted in inspection reports that are available online here.

This Little Light

Doctors delivered Logan Daniel Guralny two weeks early in a planned C-section, on Sept. 26, 2011. He weighed 9 pounds, 15 ounces and had a hearty appetite. “Fat boy,” Christina called him.

“Dalton is my roughneck, you know. Mr. I’m-a-Boy,” she said. “I think Logan was going to be my sensitive, snuggle-with-Mommy guy.”

With two kids now, they could no longer afford La Petite. They returned to Craigslist. At one home, three imposing dogs roamed a yard strewn with children’s toys. The owner said that “they were really kid-friendly,” Christina recalled.

Then they noticed an ad for This Little Light, which would be close to their new home in Suffolk..

Over the years, Dawn Robilotta has advertised her day-care curriculum as having Spanish and Italian lessons, healthy meals of yogurt and fruit, and a day devoted to dancing “like tree’s blowing to the moonwalk :).”

Dawn’s 1,400-square-foot Cape Cod house sat on two acres along Tyre Neck Road in Portsmouth. Right inside the entrance was a washer and dryer. The home had a large screened-in porch. Visitors left their shoes at the door. “Of all the people we interviewed, she had the cleanest house,” Christina said.

During their interview, Dawn insisted on holding Logan, who was crying then and cried often. “She was very calm. She handled that very well,” Christina said. “She did see him at his worst.”

Dawn said she had CPR training but “never paid for the course, so she didn’t have the card.” She gave them a contract. She told them she had a helper and talked a lot about herself and her family, giving them a biography and a document she said was a background check that showed just a speeding ticket, Christina recalled. But Christina wasn’t quite comfortable with Dawn.

“I remember driving home that night and I was like, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Christina said.

Stephen, however, liked her.

“I thought maybe he saw something I didn’t,” she said.

After Dawn’s references gave her high marks, she got the job. She would charge them $150 a week per child, a real savings.

In a phone interview with The Post, Dawn said she has cared for hundreds of children for many years. She declined to give references for parents or friends who have relied upon her to provide child care.

Dawn has lived in Suffolk, Chesapeake and Portsmouth. Twice divorced, she has three grown children. In a feature story in 2008, the Virginian-Pilot described her as a dog lover and animal-shelter volunteer who worked as a service manager at an air-conditioning and heating company started by her father.

Online, Dawn has written about her dreams of becoming an accomplished author. She started a blog called “sextherapy4u” in 2010, dedicated to dealing with “sex therapy, marriage counseling, transgender issues,” along with supporting survivors of molestation. She is shown in a photo with light brown, wavy hair swept back in a blue headband, smiling wide.

Her first post was titled “Enter Sandman,” the title of a Metallica song and a nod to a mythical character in a Hans Christian Andersen story who lulls children to sleep with magic dust.

She wished she could tell her readers that there was “a new magic drug that could take all your bad memories, anger, confusion and bitterness away.” Ultimately, “time is the great healer,” she wrote.

According to a LinkedIn résumé under her name, Dawn graduated with a master’s in psychology from Cornell University. Dawn also told The Post she learned to care for children during a college class. But a spokesman from Cornell said the university had no record of her enrollment.

When asked about the discrepancy, Dawn said, “No comment.” Later, she said she had been a victim of identity theft and that someone had created both the LinkedIn account and the blog to impersonate her.

“Why do people do what they do?” she asked.

Christina and Stephen Guralny prepare dinner as their son Dalton, 4, plays at their home in Suffolk, Va. The couple met in the Navy and were married in 2009. (Jay Westcott for The Washington Post)

Second thoughts

Beginning after Thanksgiving 2011, Christina would drop 21-month-old Dalton and 8-week-old Logan off at 6 a.m. at Dawn’s, and she or Stephen would pick them up late in the afternoon.

Logan suffered from acid reflux. Christina had been giving him gripe water, an over-the-counter herbal supplement. His pediatrician prescribed Zantac twice a day and instructed that Logan be put to bed on his back and on an incline. “We told her he cannot sleep on his stomach,” Christina said.

Shortly after signing a contract with Dawn, the Guralnys were notified of openings in the New Gosport military day-care center. “They told us we had to come by and do a $100 deposit by the end of the day or we lost our spots,” she said. They decided against it. “We would have felt bad telling Dawn, ‘We hired you, and now we are going to move the kids.’ ”

Within a couple of weeks, Christina said she began having second thoughts.

One day when she picked up Logan, his onesie was stained with urine and feces. Another time, his bottom was dirty and he had diaper rash.

Once, Stephen saw Logan sleeping on his stomach at Dawn’s in his portable playpen with a blanket. “We told her he cannot sleep on his stomach. We told her no blankets,” Christina said. “My husband reiterated that to her.”

Christina said she and Dawn talked about it several days later: “She said, ‘I have raised a lot of kids, and they have done just fine sleeping on their stomachs.’ ”

Dawn said the account is untrue. She said Stephen never went inside the home, so he would not have had the chance to see Logan sleeping.

“That he saw him sleeping in my house is a total lie,” Dawn said. “He never, ever once saw them in my house. Ever.”

One afternoon Stephen went to pick up the boys and Dawn wasn’t there, Christina said. A young woman answered the door and told him Dawn was out on an errand.

Stephen saw Logan’s name on his diaper. “Dawn had written the names on the diapers so whoever this lady was would remember who was who,” Christina said. “That is not who we paid to watch my son.”

Dawn said she does not recall leaving the home.

“I never left the kids, as far as I can remember,” she said. “I have post-traumatic stress disorder, and that’s as much as I can remember. I have blacked out a portion of my life.”

But she does remember writing the infants’ names on their diapers. The reason, Dawn said, was to make sure that each child had the right brand of diapers.

Dawn said she finds it hard to believe that the family was unhappy with her.

“If the Guralnys were ever concerned about their sons, then why did they leave them in my care?” she asked.

Video: 'This isn't happening to me'

Play Video

In 2012, Christina Guralny's 3-month-old son, Logan, died after being placed facedown to sleep in a playpen at the home of an unregulated child-care provider. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Unresponsive

In late December, the Guralnys decided to make a change. They planned to move the boys and reapply at the military child-care center, Christina said.

On Jan. 9, 2012, Christina put Logan in a new onesie she bought with some of their Christmas money. She fed him a bottle and gave him his Zantac. He had also been battling a mild cold, which she was treating as needed with Tylenol and a humidifier.

She sang a little song to him that she called the “Fattest Baby in the World.” Logan was big for his age, 23 pounds. He was also becoming quite the babbler. “He cooed a lot,” she said. “At 3 months, he had lots to say.”

Outside, it was windy and cold. She arrived at Dawn’s a little after 6 a.m. She met Dawn at the door and carried 22-month-old Dalton in first, taking off his shoes. She returned with Logan, placing him in his car carrier on the washing machine just inside the house.

She heard Dawn greet Logan.

“I remember her saying, ‘You love Miss Dawn,’ ” Christina recalled. “He was smiling at her. He’s doing his little motorcycle kick. He’s as happy as he could be. Everything was fine. I said, ‘I love you guys,’ and walked out.”

Later that day, Stephen surprised Christina by meeting her for lunch in the cafeteria at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth. It was his 29th birthday. They were in line when Christina’s cellphone began ringing in her pocket. The call was from Maryview Medical Center. “He was asking for the parent or guardian of Logan Guralny,” she said. “My heart freaking stopped beating at that point.”

Logan was being rushed to Maryview.

“We dropped our trays of food and jumped in my car,” Christina said.

They beat the ambulance to the hospital. In the emergency room, they heard an announcement of the pending arrival of an infant, code blue. “I was like: ‘Code blue? He’s not breathing — that’s a code blue,’ ” she said.

Within minutes, Logan arrived and was wheeled into a curtained bay as workers performed CPR. The line on the heart monitor was flat.

“I looked at the chaplain, and I said, ‘This is a bad dream, right?’ . . . I actually looked at him at one point and I said: ‘That is not my baby. That’s not my son. That’s not my son laying there,’ ” Christina said. “And then I see the diaper fall down, and it says ‘Logan’ on the front.”

He was pronounced dead at 12:56 p.m.

“You notice when somebody is dead. People just tend to leave the room quietly. That’s what happened until it was like three people,” she said. “And I will never forget, the ER pediatrician came over and he goes, ‘You know we have been doing this for a while, and there is no response.’ ”

She doesn’t remember much after that.

Investigations

Portsmouth police and the local Child Protective Services agency launched investigations that day.

Sonya Young, a social worker with the city of Portsmouth, arrived at Dawn’s home by 1:15 p.m., less than two hours after the 911 call. She chronicled the events in her investigative file, which was obtained by The Post through a public records request. She declined to be interviewed, citing confidentiality laws.

Dawn was “visibly distraught” and had taken a sedative to calm her nerves, Young noted. She told Young what she remembered.

That morning, Logan was “out of it” when Christina dropped him off at the home, Dawn said. His behavior seemed strange because he “was a crier and was usually awake.”

Dawn put Logan in his swing and then in his portable playpen. At 7:30 a.m., she tried to give him a bottle, but he refused. “She thought this was odd as well because he is usually a good eater. She states that he was still sleepy and she could not get him to wake up,” Young noted.

Dawn thought Logan “was having a growth spurt” and let him sleep. She later told The Post she checked on him every 20 minutes.

“He was always within my eyesight,” she said. “I tried several times to get him awake.”

At This Little Light day care, Dawn received help from her son and his girlfriend, according to the social worker’s report. The day that Logan died, the son said he and his girlfriend were helping out, the report said.

The son, William Young, now 31, is not identified in the report. He lived with Dawn at the time and was on probation after his conviction in a 1999 robbery. Then 16, he and an accomplice held up a local 7-Eleven with a handgun, according to court records.

Felons are banned from living in or working at licensed day-care homes in Virginia. But since Dawn operated her business without a license, she broke no rules in having her son in the home.

Dawn disputed the social worker’s report that stated her son helped out. She said he did not take care of the children.

“He was in his room and didn’t come out,” she said.

That morning, from 10 to 11, Dawn held a “toddler class” for the other children. Around that time, Dawn asked her son’s girlfriend to get Logan out of the playpen and ready to be fed. The girlfriend noticed something was wrong with Logan and told Dawn. The son told the social worker “he was playing with one of the other children when his girlfriend told his mother that something was wrong” with Logan.

Dawn “looked at his face and it had no color,” the social worker reported. She screamed for her son to call 911.

“She started CPR but she knew he was dead,” Sonya Young wrote. Dawn took off Logan’s onesie so the buttons would not hurt him. His stomach and feet were warm, but his hands were cold. “She states that she does not remember anything else from that point on.”

In a statement to The Post, Dawn said she, not the girlfriend, found Logan.

“At 11 a.m. I went to get Logan to see if he would eat again,” she said. “I noticed immediately that his face was not the correct color.” She said she screamed for her assistant and started CPR.

When asked about the differences between her recollection and the report, she said that her PTSD has affected her memory.

“I don’t remember. All I remember is — I can’t talk about it,” she told The Post. “Someone told me that my son told me he passed. I don’t remember if that’s true or not.”

She said she “later hyperventilated and lost consciousness.”

“When I awoke, I thought I had a bad dream,” she said. “A detective helped me up, and a social worker arrived.”

Young asked Dawn about her background. Dawn told her she had kept children in her home for 26 years but had “some health issues so she is never there alone with the children.” Dawn also said she had “gone through a certification program” with the state Department of Social Services. Young, however, found no record of Dawn’s day-care business being “certified or licensed” at any time, according to Young’s report.

Dawn later told The Post she attended a local social-services class on infant child care in the fall of 2011. Instructors taught the caregivers to cover all electrical outlets, to keep exit signs above the doors and to not let children eat on the floor, but “never, not once,” did they discuss sudden infant death, she said.

Detective Jeff Branch also interviewed Dawn on the day of Logan’s death.

“The caregiver indicated that she placed the baby on his stomach when she placed him in the playpen,” Branch told The Post. Logan was found facedown with a blanket in the playpen.

Dawn was hospitalized that day, “partly for her physical and partly for her mental health,” the social worker’s report states.

The next day, Christina and Stephen met with Young, the social worker. They said they had grown concerned about Logan’s care at Dawn’s. He had been “wide awake and alert” that morning, they said.

Christina asked Young if they were going to do an autopsy: “She looked at the clock behind me and said, ‘They are doing it right now.’ ” The two women began to cry.

A week later, Dawn called the social worker and asked about the Guralnys.

Dawn “went on to express her extreme grief and stated that she will never be able to keep children again,” Young wrote. “She states day care was the only thing she was ever good at and now it is gone.”

Postmortem

Five months passed while toxicology tests were completed. In May 2012, the medical examiner released the final report: There was no physical reason for him to be dead. “The body is that of a well-nourished, well-developed infant male,” the report stated.

Logan’s death would remain a mystery.

The report classified Logan’s cause of death as “sudden unexpected infant death with viral pneumonitis contributing.” The manner of death could not be determined. An SUID classification is reached only after an autopsy finds no evidence of injury, foul play, violence or life-threatening illness.

Logan's parents, Christina and Stephen, still question what happened to him, along with the choices they made in searching for day care. (Family photo)

There were some patchy areas in Logan’s lung. The autopsy noted that “viral pneumonitis is rarely associated with infant death but it may have played a role.”

Another risk factor was Logan’s placement in the portable crib, facedown. “The prone positioning reported by law enforcement could have played a role as well,” the autopsy report stated.

Infants are not supposed to sleep on their stomachs, because they are more likely to accidentally suffocate in that position.

Starting in the mid-1990s, a “Back to Sleep” public awareness campaign has warned of the risks. “Always place babies on their backs to sleep,” advises the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Virginia, since 2010, licensed in-home day-care providers are prohibited from placing infants facedown to sleep without written approval. Unregulated providers are not subject to that rule.

Dawn told The Post she does not remember what she told police that day, but she said she is certain that she put Logan on his back, not his stomach.

In sudden infant deaths, investigators will sometimes ask the caregivers to use a doll or teddy bear to reenact how they placed the child to sleep and how they found the child. Re-enactments are considered by the state Child Fatality Review Team to be a “vital component” of investigations, though they are not mandatory in Virginia. A state study of sleep deaths in 2009 found that reenactments were not done in 60 perent of the cases.

Dawn did not do a reenactment.

“The caregiver was not able to do a re-enactment due to the fact that she was emotionally unable to perform it,” Branch, the detective, said in an e-mail to The Post.

Without a reenactment, “asphyxia cannot be ruled in or out,” the autopsy report stated.

In a letter to Dawn and Logan’s parents, the social worker said Dawn did not abuse or neglect Logan. “A review of the facts show a preponderance of evidence that physical abuse has not occurred,” Child Protective Services records show.

Branch also closed out his case. “We found nothing suspicious at the house,” he said in an interview. Branch said he did not interview Dawn’s son, William, and was unaware of his criminal record, but he said those details were immaterial because there was no evidence of a crime.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Earle C. Mobley said Logan’s facedown position was “interesting,” considering that infants typically cannot roll over until they are older.

“Does a 3-month-old roll over? Probably not,” he said. But he pointed out that generations of caregivers placed children on their stomachs before the public health campaign taught otherwise.

“In this case, there was nothing to indicate there was anything criminal in nature,” he said.

After Logan’s death, Dawn’s son was arrested for a string of burglaries committed in early 2011 in the Portsmouth area, before Logan had started going to Dawn’s. In a short report, his probation officer briefly mentioned his struggle with “drug use, mental health, reporting as instructed, and instability in residence.” In a plea deal in 2013, William Young was convicted of burglary and grand larceny. Young, who is imprisoned at Lawrenceville Correctional Center, declined a request for an interview. He is scheduled to be released in 2021, records show.

Christina and Stephen have story time with Dalton before bed. Christina said Dalton doesn’t yet grasp that his baby brother isn’t coming back. (Jay Westcott for The Washington Post)

Epilogue

In the aftermath of Logan’s death, Dawn said she tried to speak to the Guralny family but has never gotten the chance. She said she repeatedly told the family that something was wrong with Logan because he cried so much.

“People have told me that Logan passed with me because his parents would have not been able to handle his dying with them,” she said. “His death will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

Dawn said she has been crippled by “a wealth of sadness and fear.”

“Every infant that I saw had Logan’s face,” she said. “My granddaughter was born two days prior to his death, and I couldn’t be around my own granddaughter. Nightmares were constant and recurrent. I couldn’t leave home, and I wanted to die.”

Logan’s body was flown to Syracuse, N.Y., for burial. The family dressed him in a plush navy-blue onesie with a picture of a bear holding a football and the words, “Daddy’s Little Quarterback.” He became the first Guralny in the family plot.

Shortly after they buried Logan, Christina underwent a procedure to reverse a tubal ligation she had after he was born. In June, she had to be hospitalized after she suffered an ectopic pregnancy.

“I don’t want to replace Logan, because there is nothing else in the world,” she said. “But I just want to have another baby. I want to have our family back.”

They thought about hiring a lawyer to look into Logan’s death. “After we buried him and came back home and reality set in, we just didn’t even have the energy,” she said.

Dalton, now 4, still thinks his baby brother is at the doctor’s office. “He hasn’t pieced it together that he is not coming back,” Christina said. “He has seen his grave site. But I don’t know how to explain it to him.”

Upstairs at their home in Suffolk, they have left Logan’s room much as it was. His toys are there, and his dresser is filled with his clothes. The blanket she changed him on for the last time is sealed in a zip-top bag.

It still smells like Logan.

Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins and Whitney Leaming contributed to this report.

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