HOUSTON (AP) — Working two jobs to make ends meet, Keisha Brown was looking for affordable, safe child care for her 16-month-old son.
After visiting a home day care run by Jessica Tata, the 21-year-old mother thought she had found what she wanted. Tata "seemed like a nice person and knew what she was doing," according to Brown.
But about a month later, her son, Elias Castillo, was dead — killed with three other children in a fire last year that started when investigators say Tata left the children alone at her day care while she went shopping. Tata is now on trial on one of four felony murder counts she faces, related to Elias' death.
Other parents who also entrusted their children with Tata have told similar stories during the day care owner's trial in Houston, with some even vetting the day care through the state agency that licenses such facilities. After the fire, state lawmakers made some changes to improve oversight of home day care centers. But child care experts say Texas is among many states still lagging behind what advocates believe should be the standard for keeping tabs on such facilities.
According to a report released earlier this year by the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, Texas and many other states fall short in terms of training requirements, background checks and inspection standards.
Tori Mannes, president and CEO of ChildCareGroup, a Dallas-based organization that helps families find affordable child care, said the parents who had children at Tata's day care were doing the right things before enrolling their kids: asking questions, visiting the facility. Tata's day care was in good standing with the state at the time of the fire.
"Most parents are trying their very best to do all they can for their children," she said. "The message is for parents to be their child's strongest advocate."
Investigators have said the fire was sparked by oil in a frying pan on a stovetop burner that had been left on. Three other children were seriously injured. Tata's attorneys argue she never intended to hurt the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old, and that she tried to save them. Tata, 24, faces up to life in prison if convicted. Her trial began last week and is expected to last about a month.
As of August, Texas had 25,045 day care operations, including 6,302 registered child care homes like the one Tata ran. While licensed child care centers in Texas are inspected at least once a year, home day care facilities like Tata's are reviewed every one to two years.
Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which licenses day care facilities, said the state is doing enough to ensure day care facilities are being properly run and regulated.
"Our current program is a good one and very protective of children, said Crimmins, who added that last year his agency conducted nearly 50,000 inspections of day care operations.
Since the fire, some efforts have been made to improve child care regulation in Texas. Lawmakers passed bills increasing the amount of training people must have before they start providing child care from eight hours to 24. Annual training for workers was increased from 15 to 24 hours and from 20 to 30 hours for directors. In Houston, the City Council last year passed an ordinance requiring annual fire safety inspections of home day care facilities.
For home day care facilities, the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies recommends 40 hours of pre-service training and quarterly inspections. While states such as Oklahoma, Washington, Kansas and Delaware were lauded for their education requirements and availability online of complaint reports, they still didn't fully meet the group's standards for number of training hours or inspections.
Mannes noted manicurists and hairstylists in Texas have to complete more hours of training than child care providers.
"It's a start. I certainly think there could be more," she said.
Kara Johnson, an early childhood expert with Texans Care for Children, said her group pushed legislation in 2009 that would have increased pre-service training to 40 hours. It failed to pass because of cost concerns for day care facilities. Last year's bills were a compromise, she said.
Johnson said her group is pursuing a proposal for next year's legislative session that would provide parents who receive federal assistance for child care with rankings for facilities.
"It's just the beginning. It's going to lay the foundation for the system we do need long term," Johnson said.
Follow Juan A. Lozano at http://www.twitter.com/juanlozano70