Our 4-month-old adopted baby, Lily, died at the baby-sitter's house in June. The sitter put her down on her back for a nap at around 1:30 p.m. and checked on her later. But sometime between 2:20 and 2:45, Lily rolled over onto her stomach and stopped breathing.
When I arrived at 3:30, I saw a couple of police cars parked on the street. I parked in the driveway and when I walked up to the front stoop, a man approached and asked if I were Mrs. Heavey. I looked into the front door and saw the sitter's husband. He looked stricken.
"What's wrong?" I managed.
"You'll need to come with us to the hospital. Your baby got sick," the man outside said, pointing me in the direction of a police officer. I was suddenly numb.
When I got to the hospital, they took me straight into the private family room off the emergency room waiting area, and the babysitter was there with my other daughter, Molly. They took the sitter out of the room, then a young blond woman in surgical scrubs came in and sat down next to me.
"We're sorry, we did everything we could . . . " Her voice trailed on, but I couldn't listen. I felt as though I were watching "ER" or some movie, and I couldn't take it in.
The nurse led me to the room where Lily was. Her tiny body was shrouded in a white sheet in the middle of this big bed. I touched her beautiful, still face. She looked like she was sleeping, but there was a tube in her mouth and another on her left leg. Her skin was cool, except for her belly, which was still warm. I murmured to her, then cradled her tiny body in my arms. It was then I noticed the police officer standing quietly in the corner of the room. The search for responsible parties had already begun, and I never spent another moment alone with Lily.
I didn't know then that the blaming would continue to grow for weeks after her death, making the already tough job of letting her go that much harder. My grief is clouded by the conversation that swirls around us now and the questions raised about the day care provider we chose and our responsibilities as adoptive parents.
The police investigate day-care deaths as a matter of course. While we were still at the hospital, a detective interviewed me and my 13-year-old daughter, Molly, then later my husband, Bill--all separately, to make sure our stories jibed. We knew he was just doing his job. It turned out he had two adopted children of his own. We felt the shadow of suspicion hover over us momentarily, then move on.
But the case had a special urgency for the police because they found the day-care facility was in violation of state regulations. There were more than 30 children (and six women watching them) at a facility licensed for nine children and one helper. Although we believe the children had sufficient supervision, to qualify for the proper licensure for such a large group of children, the day-care operator should have been in a commercial setting rather than in her home.
The day-care home was immediately closed and searched. The police took anything that might turn up evidence that the babysitter was violating any rules, including under-reporting income. They even took the computer containing the homework of her 13-year-old son, who is a classmate of Molly's.
Suspicion fell on our babysitter as the police tried to find out if she was to blame for Lily's death. We had complete confidence in her. We chose the sitter based on advice from a trusted friend. The sitter lives near us, and many people we know--parents of children who have been in Molly's schools and classes with her--recommended her and supported our choice. We visited her house, looked at the large, open play room on the first floor where the toddlers were watched, saw the room upstairs where the baby would sleep. And the place and recommendations looked better than any setting I had been able to find for Molly 13 years ago.
We were happy to find a Vietnamese babysitter for our Vietnamese baby. This seemed like a lucky coincidence.
After Lily died, the medical examiner told us there were no signs of distress or trauma. So the most likely determination of death will be that she died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), a mysterious ailment that kills without warning. Researchers have not been able to pinpoint why this happens. But in recent years they have begun urging parents of infants to have the babies sleep on their backs because studies have shown that some deaths may be related to the children not getting enough oxygen while sleeping face down.
We believe the babysitter is responsible for the licensing violations. Those violations don't point to responsibility for Lily's death, however. We met a woman at a SIDS support group whose daughter died the same way. She felt that the police and media attention on the day-care provider suggested blame, and I felt the same way. But by focusing on the day-care violations, the real story--SIDS--gets ignored.
When Lily would nap at home, we would check on her every 20 or 30 minutes. This could have happened at home. This could have happened when Molly was watching her for an hour, or when her grandmother was watching her for an evening. If my husband, Bill, had been watching her, would I be blaming him? Or vice versa?
Pointing fingers at our day-care situation was difficult to deal with, but nothing could have prepared me for the questions about our parenting. After the memorial service, a friend said she was surprised we would have put Lily in day care. It seems that some people believe we should adopt a child only if we were able to do what most biological parents don't do anymore--keep our kids with us 100 percent of the time. We were sharing the care of her between us. My husband works as a writer and wrote in the morning. I work as a psychotherapist and saw clients from 12 to 4 p.m. while we had her.
Out of that 10 1/2 weeks Lily was with us, she spent a total of 24 hours with someone outside our family.
Before we got her, she was spending 12 hours a day with a babysitter.
Weeks after the wake, I heard of another woman asking the same question: "Why would someone adopt a child and then turn around and put her in day care?"
This stung me. Actually, I was enraged when I heard it.
But as the days pass, I'm beginning to understand and forgive. It's hard to live with the knowledge that your baby could go down for a nap and never wake up, that it could happen while you sat listening attentively in the next room. It's an unbearable thought. So people make up categories for those of us who have been visited by tragedy. They decide that we are different, and this makes them feel immune and safe from the same fate.
They do anything to avoid the truth.
The truth is we were loving parents. We adored this beautiful little girl. And she died anyway.
Although the medical examiner's report is not yet final, it appears that Lily died for the same reason 7,000 other SIDS babies in the United States die each year. Apparently healthy infants are put down to sleep in their cribs, and without crying out or signaling any distress, they stop breathing.
Nobody knows the cause.
So who gets the blame?
Jane Ashley Heavey lives in Arlington.
CAPTION: In a family photo, Jane Ashley Heavey kisses her daughter Lily, who died while in the care of day-care provider in June. Lily is believed to have died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.