An article Sunday contained incorrect information about inspections of child care providers in the District. The D.C. Department of Health conducts unannounced inspections of licensed family child care providers once a year. (Published 12/01/1999)

They called her "Mommy Hien," and for 16 years they flocked to her home in North Arlington. Teachers, lawyers and other professionals eagerly turned their children over to Minh-Hien Bui, relieved to have found such loving and affordable day care, and county inspectors raved about her service.

But on June 16, Bui's status went from model babysitter to criminal suspect. Police officers, called to her house after a baby in her care stopped breathing, counted 42 children inside the four-bedroom house where she was licensed to look after no more than five youngsters.

Bui was not charged in the death of the 4-month-old girl, who died later that day at Arlington Hospital. But she admitted that she had exceeded the county's limits on children at family day-care homes, pleading guilty to three misdemeanor charges--including reporting to local authorities only a fraction of the $242,144 she made last year. Her day-care license was revoked and her business shut down.

Then came another twist. Many of the parents who had taken their children to Bui's house said they felt hurt and betrayed--not by Bui, but by the county officials who were prosecuting her. They met in their homes over coffee to commiserate over losing her services. They took Bui and her husband out to dinner and gave them emotional support. And more than 100 people--most of them former clients of Bui's--have signed letters to Judge Benjamin Kendrick, pleading with him to be lenient when he sentences her next month.

"She practically raised this neighborhood of kids," said George Wysor Jr., whose 6-year-old daughter had been with Bui since infancy. "And the county basically wants to put this woman behind bars. That's what we're all shocked about."

Bui could receive up to three years in prison when she is sentenced Dec. 7. But whatever penalty the judge imposes, the answers to some of the vexing questions surrounding the case will not be found inside the courtroom.

How could the county's day-care office not have known sooner that Bui was committing such a blatant violation of the rules? Why didn't parents realize that she was not allowed to take in so many children? Did she really deserve to have her business closed, given that her clients were happy and that she employed five assistants to help her look after the children?

Bui's case is instructive in many respects, child-care specialists say. It underscores the crowding problems that have resulted from a shortage of day-care providers; the holes in the patchwork of regulations governing care in private homes; and the abiding trust that parents often have in the person they have hired to guide and nurture their child.

Bui, 42, lives in a neat brick rambler on North Ohio Street in Arlington's Dominion Hills neighborhood with her husband and two sons, ages 16 and 13. Flowers line the steps of the home, and brightly colored play equipment sits in the wooded back yard.

Bui became a licensed day-care provider in Arlington in 1983, soon after she immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. The county allowed her to care for up to three children until 1998, when the number was raised to five.

Court records do not show exactly how long Bui had been violating those limits, but a police affidavit quotes parents as saying that in recent years, it was not uncommon to see more than two dozen children being cared for at the 1,777-square-foot home. Bui declined to be interviewed for this story.

On Wednesday, June 16, about 1:30 p.m., 4-month-old Elizabeth "Lily" Heavey was put down for a nap in a portable playpen in a home office on the main floor. The doors were closed. Someone checked on Lily about 90 minutes later, according to police, saw she was not breathing and called 911.

Police say that when they arrived at the house, they saw Lily and four other babies on the main level; 31 children, ranging from 1 to 7 years old, playing in the finished basement; and six youngsters who appeared older than 7. There were seven adults at the home: Bui, her husband and five female assistants.

The cause of Lily's death could not be determined, and after meeting with the medical examiner, Lily's parents concluded that their daughter likely died of sudden infant death syndrome.

Bui pleaded guilty to failing to report most of her income from last year for county business tax purposes (though she reported the full amount on her federal tax return); obtaining money under false pretenses from Justine Fitzgerald, a client who was assured that her child would be one of only five youngsters at the home; and operating without a state license. In Virginia, any home provider caring for more than five children needs a state license, and home providers are barred from taking in more than 12 children unless they have converted their house into a day-care center.

To this day, many of the parents who hired Bui defend her passionately. It wasn't just a business relationship, they say; Bui was an essential partner in raising their children.

She visited the children at home when they were ill, attended their birthday parties and baptisms, talked to their teachers about their schoolwork when she picked them up from nearby McKinley Elementary. Every day, she gave motherly advice to busy working parents.

"She would always tell us at the end of the day what sorts of things our daughters were doing," said Kathie Bailey-Mathae, a trade association executive who had two children in Bui's care. "If there were any discipline problems that came up, she would suggest approaches. We would work on them together."

Tears filled Darlene Hough's eyes as she recalled how quickly Bui acted when Hough's daughter, then 2, had a sudden seizure at the caregiver's home. Bui promptly performed CPR and called 911. Hough, a paralegal, said doctors told her that Bui probably saved the toddler's life.

Liz Horner, an occupational therapist, had three children at Bui's house, one of them disabled, and Bui's husband built a special chair to make it easier for the child to sit upright.

Almost all of the 10 parents interviewed after Bui was charged by police were highly supportive of her. Fitzgerald, the mother named in the indictment, could not be reached.

The parents said they were well aware that there were many more than five children at Bui's house. It didn't worry them because she had plenty of assistants who seemed loving and patient. Some parents said that they even called the county's child-care office to ask about the maximum number of children permitted in a private home and that county workers gave them vague or confusing answers, saying that it depended on the children's ages.

Horner said she had no idea that Bui wasn't licensed to care for more than five children. "I never knew that until it came out in the paper," she said.

Certainly, Bui's credentials seemed beyond question. She had a thick staff of certificates for completing classes in first aid, early childhood development, the needs of disabled youngsters.

Timothy J. McEvoy, Bui's attorney, said she used much of her income to pay her five assistants and make improvements to her day-care operation.

"If we're all about happy and healthy kids, then she got an A-plus in the needs of her clients," he said. "This is not a lady who was trying to drum up business. People were beating down her door."

Day-care homes that take in too many children are one of the biggest problems in the industry, child-care regulators say--and an inevitable result of the nationwide shortage of providers.

Some day-care centers in the Washington area have waiting lists with more than 100 names. The number of county-licensed home providers in Fairfax has dropped 14 percent in the last year, while calls from parents seeking help locating child care have risen 7 percent.

In a market this tight, some providers cannot resist the temptation to earn extra revenue by taking on more children than allowed, regulators and child advocacy groups say.

Contrary to what parents may think, such arrangements in single-family homes are always risky for children, according to child-care researchers.

For one thing, there is the risk that the aides working in such a home will not meet state training standards. Even a house with many well-qualified assistants presents hazards: lack of fire exits; accidents from children being confined to close quarters; ventilation problems from cooking large amounts of food in a small kitchen.

In several states, parents have lobbied for stiffer penalties against over-capacity homes after their children died in such facilities.

Laws that took effect in recent weeks in Florida and New York make it a crime for providers to lie about the number of children in their care. Florida father Mark Fiedelholtz pushed for the changes in that state after his 3-month-old son suffocated in a home with 13 children, nine more than the legal limit. In New York, the new law was sparked by the case of a 3-month-old who died while unattended in a baby swing at an over-capacity home in Albany.

Closer to home, the Fairfax licensing office of the state Department of Social Services, which covers most of Northern Virginia, has taken action against six over-capacity providers so far this year, including a Loudoun County provider who was caring for 19 children and was shut down. In Prince George's County, police have filed criminal charges against a Capitol Heights woman and her daughter after a baby girl died of sudden infant death syndrome while in their care, in a home where there were allegedly as many as 30 children.

Despite what Bui's clients say, it is not difficult for a parent to get accurate information on the maximum number of children a provider is allowed to supervise, according to Virginia Taylor, director of Arlington's Child Care Office. Taylor said the office's list of approved providers notes the figure next to each provider's name, and the figure is also on the license posted at the child-care home.

"The license she was issued said five children," Taylor said. "That means five bodies. That's clear-cut."

Arlington's Child Care Office made annual scheduled visits to Bui's house, and year after year she got glowing reports from the inspectors.

"She talks to the children constantly and she is always involved with them," said a typically positive report, written in 1995. "She is very firm, tender and sweet with them. She loves the children and the children love her."

But because Bui knew in advance about those visits, the inspectors may have seen a home that was far less crowded than usual. At least once, according to police, Bui told most of her clients that she would be closed that day because she had a doctor's appointment, so their children were absent when the inspector arrived.

Surprise inspections are the only sure way to catch providers who run crowded facilities, child-care specialists say.

Arlington does not require surprise inspections. Taylor said her office tries to do them occasionally but does not have the staff to conduct them regularly at the 900 providers and preschools it regulates.

In 16 years, Bui received one unannounced visit from an inspector. It was in October 1998. "It took some time for Bui to answer the door, so she apologized to me for the delay," said the inspector's unsigned report. "Everything seemed to be running well," the inspector added, noting that Bui was "operating full to capacity so she was very happy."

In Maryland, lawmakers passed a bill in May requiring unannounced visits every two years to all of the state's 12,000 family child-care homes. Two mothers whose babies suffocated in 1998 at an over-capacity home in Kent Island lobbied vigorously for the legislation.

Virginia requires surprise visits at least once a year to the child-care homes that are state-regulated--those licensed to care for more than five children. For providers like Bui who claim to be under the state's limit, the decision is up to each local government. Fairfax, like Arlington, does not require surprise visits, while Alexandria does. Loudoun and Prince William don't regulate such providers at all.

The District does not conduct surprise inspections at its 220 licensed homes unless there is a complaint.

Lily Heavey's parents have planted a garden in her memory in the yard of their Arlington home. Around a stone that says "Remember" they have put crepe myrtle, which begins flowering in June, the month their daughter died. There are also plenty of lilies, the flower for which she was named.

Jane Ashley-Heavey does not blame Bui for her daughter's death and does not think the babysitter should go to jail. She believes "in my heart of hearts" that Lily died of SIDS.

Still, it bothered her to learn after Lily's death that her daughter was one of five infants at Bui's home. She said she had understood from Bui that there would be only one infant at a time at the house.

Ashley-Heavey and her husband, Bill, adopted Lily 10 1/2 weeks before she died. Lily was Vietnamese, and they were delighted that the woman who would be watching her was also from Vietnam.

But looking back now, Ashley-Heavey wishes she had not relied so heavily on the advice of other parents who recommended Bui. "I made assumptions based on the fact that I knew a lot of people who knew her," she said. "I just trusted the people I knew."

If she had inspected the house more thoroughly, perhaps dropped in unexpectedly, she said, she would have seen that there were many more infants and children there than she had thought. For that, she blames herself.

Sometimes she can't help wondering what really happened at Bui's house on June 16. "Even though I don't hold her responsible for the baby's death, there's still that question of what was that last hour like," she said. "You can't know the exact circumstances if you're not there."

CAPTION: Kathie Bailey-Mathae and daughter Emily, 6, chat with Minh-Hien Bui, who used to care for Emily.

CAPTION: Elizabeth "Lily" Heavey, shown with mother Jane Ashley-Heavey, stopped breathing during a nap in June and died.