The recent abduction of 16-month-old Aiden Mullins from a Mountain Home child care facility, Open Arms Learning Center, may have some parents in our local area wondering how safe their children are while supervised by others.
In Sharp County there are at least seven child day care facilities and 11 home-based day care facilities, all of which are subject to tight supervision according to Julie Munsell, a representative of the Arkansas Department of Human Services. According to Munsell, regulations come not only from the Arkansas Child Care Center guidelines but also from mandatory training child care facility providers must have to become licensed operators. The training is where child care employees, volunteers and mainly supervisors learn the proper steps of child pick-up regulations and procedures.
"Although it's not in the regulations, it's part of the intent for providers to develop a policy," Munsell said.
According to the Sharp County child care facilities contacted, all have policies in place to facilitate safe drop-off and pick-up procedures but the same policies used by Open Arms did not stop Mullins from being abducted June 23.
Munsell said that the day care facilities must have a list of emergency numbers and names on file but further specifications are left to the discretion of the day care facility and are subject to DHS supervision.
"We expect them to clarify a policy to verify that these people are who they say they are," Munsell said.
Open Arms in Mountain Home said in an interview with the Baxter Bulletin their procedure, which has been changed, was to allow parents to call in during an emergency to inform them someone else would be picking up the child, but they also required ID when the person arrived. The abductor, Samantha House-Baser, managed to get past Open Arms employees by calling, pretending to be the child's mother and saying there was an emergency and Mullins' aunt would be picking him up. When her ID was requested, she said she had already shown it to someone else.
One local child care center, Kids Care Infant and Child Learning Center located in Ash Flat, has a sign-in sheet at the front door and face recognition is the method mostly used when parents are picking up their children, according to center Director Patricia Holder.
"If someone different is picking up the child, I have to have their name on the list and check their ID," Holder explained.
Two other facilities, the First Assembly Day Care Center in Cave City and From the Beginning in Ash Flat and Cave City, have similar pick-up procedures and operators said they encourage parents to update their pick-up lists as often as possible. All facilities said they are extremely strict on who is able to pick-up the child.
"If someone comes in that we don't know, we check their ID and if they're not authorized to pick them up, they simply can't take them," said Faye Townsley director of the First Assembly Day Care Center.
Jean Beck is the licensing specialist for the local area and provides the necessary employee training for any new facilities or ones that need to update their training.
"We talk about supervision, what's on the enrollment form. All of my facilities have a procedure and have an authorized list and know its purpose," Beck said about the procedures taught to local child care facilities.
Beck said the incident in Mountain Home was a very rare incident and yearly record checks help to alleviate any misunderstanding about the importance of the pickup authorization list.
"When there's not someone listed for a child, I question that and they usually have a good response like they just moved here," Beck said.
Beck performs a yearly record check to ensure compliance with DHS standards. Many sources for parents to check licensing and inspection results for local child care facilities are available through DHS and, according to Munsell, should be taken full advantage of. The Web site is arkansas.gov/childcare where parents can find DHS personnel to call and detailed information about the status of their day care of choice. In the FAQ portion of the Web site, parents can find the list of minimum licensing requirements if their child care facility's methods seem in any way questionable or negligent.
The Arkansas Department of Health and Human Services urges all parents to ensure a specific child care facility is licensed and up to standards before putting the health and safety of children in their hands.