Child’s injuries damage parents’ trust in day care

The Washington Post

By Petula Dvorak, Washington Post columnist
October 24, 2011

The baby’s unusual, hoarse cry and his bright red face were the first signs that something had gone seriously wrong at the day-care center.

It was obvious to Amal Patel that his 11-month-old son had been crying for a long time when he arrived to pick him up in May 2010.

But Patel and his wife loved the State Department-sponsored day care that their son was in. They’d never had reason to doubt it — couldn’t imagine that they’d wind up suing the center in D.C. Superior Court for $3 million. Diplotots in Foggy Bottom is one of those coveted Washington day-care centers with fetuses on its waiting list.

So Patel, who works as an analyst for the Federal Reserve, figured his ordinarily happy baby had just had a bad day. It wasn’t until after he and his wife, Darcy Anderson, had had the child strapped in the car several minutes later that they figured out the reason for his continuing screams. The palms of both fat, little starfish hands were covered in angry red burns and blisters the size of peas.

They turned right back around to the day care, where Anderson asked the center’s director about the baby’s hands. The director, who did not respond to requests from The Washington Post for comment, hadn’t noticed anything wrong with the baby’s hands, Anderson said she told her.

“She was so calm and matter-of-fact about it,” said Anderson, who works in homeland security for the State Department. “I was panicking. She told me: ‘If you’re concerned, you should take him to the hospital.’ ”

The parents raced to the Georgetown University Hospital emergency room, where they watched doctors try to calm the child with morphine while they wrapped his hands with bandages. The baby and his mother were taken by ambulance that evening to the burn unit at Children’s National Medical Center, where surgeons operated on the scalded hands.

The parents and their attorney, Michael Morgenstern, asked that the child not be identified.

Patel and Anderson became the targets of a child abuse investigation by D.C. police and the city’s Child and Family Services Agency, a requirement when a child arrives at a hospital with unexplained injuries.

It was the correct protocol, both parents said, but humiliating. And, ultimately, unnecessary.

That’s why they said they are suing the day care more than a year after the incident. They think their child was hurt on that hot day last year when he pulled himself up on a scorching outdoor windowsill beside the playground.

They came to that conclusion because, according to the CFSA, the day-care director called the building’s engineer right after she sent the parents to the hospital. She asked him to take a temperature reading of the windowsill by the playground, asking him whether he thought it was hot enough to burn someone. The engineer told the CFSA investigator that the windowsill was between 100 and 120 degrees. And that was about 6 p.m., according to the agency’s report.

And why would she suspect that window?

Turns out that another child at Diplotots had received an identical hand burn in 2006 on that window, said other parents who remembered the incident and got in touch with Patel and Anderson.

Anne Schmitz, executive director the Executive Child Development Center, which oversees Diplotots, said that the day care had been advised by its attorney not to comment on the case or the lawsuit.

A social worker and a police investigator concluded that the parents had not abused the baby, that he had probably been injured on the playground and that “no staff person was intentionally involved in the injury of the child’s hands.”

In other words, it was an accident. Case closed.

But not for Patel and Anderson. They won’t know for a while whether their child will recover fully from the burns. His hands have small scars, and they’ll know in a few years whether he escaped nerve damage. He continues to be happy and social on all fronts. The oddest thing about him is that he refuses to finger-paint, his mom told me.

The parents have suffered their own, less visible wounds from the incident, they said. They had a hard enough time, as new parents, entrusting their child to a day-care center. Building that trust back up for another place has been difficult.

Patel and Anderson said that if their curious and active child had indeed pulled himself up onto a hot windowsill and burned his hands that day, and if the director had called them up, told them exactly what happened and then worked to find a way to cover that windowsill — cordon it off or block it from the sunlight — they would never have sued. In fact, they would’ve probably stayed at Diplotots. They loved it otherwise.

“We aren’t anti-day care. In fact, he’s back in another day care and is happy,” Patel said.

This is one of those working-parent nightmares. It was horrible, not fatal.

But it calls into question all of the child-care decisions we make and the faith we put into the village that helps raise our children.

I have a soft spot for the underpaid, underappreciated child-care workers of the District. I served on the board of my children’s preschool. We wrangled with what to do when two of the teachers forgot a child in a park one day but quickly returned to get him. And we cringed when all we could afford to give one of the favorite teachers at the school, who spent countless hours wiping noses and butts, singing songs, painting and pampering and surviving tantrums, was a raise that amounted to 13 cents an hour.

Accidents happen, as Patel and Anderson readily acknowledge.

But, as any child is told over and over, it’s what happens after the accident that matters most.