Cautionary Advice for Parents Using Day Care

Karpeisky with her children, Rachel and Aaron. (Inna Arshavsky)
Karpeisky with her children, Rachel and Aaron. (Inna Arshavsky)
By Julia Karpeisky
Thursday, January 26, 2006

In a Christmas day crime that stunned the community, 27-year-old Nathan Cheatham of McLean killed his mother at her home in McLean, then drove to a house in Great Falls, where he shot and killed three acquaintances before killing himself. Sheila Cheatham ran the Mother Nurture day-care center from her home, and Nathan had sometimes assisted her there even though court records show he had legal and mental health problems. Julia Karpeisky of McLean who took her children, Rachel and Aaron, to Mother Nurture, discusses the difficulty of choosing a day-care provider.

I was moved to write by the recent murder of my child's day-care provider, Sheila Cheatham. The Post has published a number of stories covering the tragedy. However, not much has been said from the standpoint of the parents who left their children in Sheila's care.

I am sure that most of them can easily relate to the raw terror I felt when I learned that a man who was right there with the children on Dec. 23 would kill four people and himself two days later. This was the same man who, two days earlier, according to a Jan. 1 article in The Post, "drove through the neighborhood taking potshots, at one point sending two bullets into a house" [" 'Pillar of Strength' Lost in Bloodshed; Cheatham Was Devoted to Troubled Son," Metro].

I am sad for Sheila and Nathan and the other three people whom I did not know, and I am incredibly thankful that his anger and desperation did not explode while the children were around.

Making a decision about whom to trust with the care of your child is one of the most essential, stressful and anxiety-producing decisions a new working parent must face. Over the course of the last four years, I've had disturbing experiences with family day-care centers in McLean, and I'd like to share with other parents the lessons I learned in the process.

In the Jan. 1 article, Sheila Cheatham was portrayed as "a pillar of strength," a woman who was devoted to her son and "gave him a job at her day-care center." Unfortunately, this devotion came at the expense of our children and our trust in her. Had I known Nathan Cheatham had been charged with drug possession and convicted on a weapons charge and was around the children on a regular basis, I would have taken my son out immediately. I certainly would not have recommended the center to two of my friends.

Four years ago, I put my older child in an in-home day-care center that started out as a wonderful, cheerful, loving place. My heart was at peace for about a year and a half, until the owner hired a relative with no child-care experience who, while employed at the center, was arrested. We later found out she had previous legal problems.

For both women (much more so in Sheila Cheatham's case), a desire to help a family member came in conflict with their obligation to comply with the licensing requirements and do their best job caring for the children we entrusted to them. Loyalty to the family member came first, and I think this is human nature. I want to think that my judgment would be sounder had I found myself in the same situation, but I don't know, nor do I wish to find out.

When I left my children in a licensed family day-care center, my expectation was that the license provided assurance of certain basics, such as that there would be no guns or drugs in the house, no unstable individuals or criminals next to children, a certain ratio of caregivers to children, regular diaper changes and time outside. The reality shows that the license alone does not guarantee any of these most basic requirements, and that when facing a choice between following the rules and helping a family member, some day-care providers are more likely to choose the family member. Although I am not in a position to make any specific recommendations on how to improve licensing compliance, I do know that something needs to be done to raise the bar for the quality of child care in Northern Virginia.

Where does this leave parents in need of child care? There is a real shortage of quality, affordable day-care centers that are not home-based and that accept infants. The few that we have in McLean tend either to be expensive, with long waiting lists nonetheless, or to have had problems related to the mishandling of infants. There are many more choices for 2 1/2 -year-olds.

Many working parents feel dependent on their day-care providers, and once they find one they like, they are often afraid to rock the boat. It is only natural to want to be on good terms with the person who takes care of your child.

Despite my experience, I do not advocate against family day-care centers. I am sure there are many wonderful, loving, nurturing places. My advice to parents considering an in-home day-care provider is to do extra checking if you see a family member with the kids a lot, if there is a change in personnel that involves a family member or if you notice that the provider follows the rules selectively.

Show up at odd times during the day and see what's going on. If the provider makes you feel unwelcome, it's a good reason to worry. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask to see background documents on caregivers and people otherwise spending time with children. Don't be afraid to call the licensing department. And most important, don't be afraid to pull out your child if the place is not right. I am sure most employers would understand if you have to take a few extra days off under such circumstances.

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