As parents in suburbia, we count on day care to keep our kids cared for, busy—and safe. In a new e-book called In Good Hands, journalist David Hechler suggests that we don’t always think about day care safety in the right ways, and we need to re-examine our ideas of good/bad day care options.
Hechler focuses on a notorious murder case from Irmo, South Carolina. Gail Cutro was convicted of killing two infants in her childcare facility over a stretch of nine months in 1993. As part of a Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism fellowship, he spent time in SC researching the murders and trials, and he interviewed Cutro in prison.
In Good Hands not only lays out the specifics of the Cutro case, but also looks at what we get wrong (and right) about day care safety and adds an Appendix of recent interviews with experts about what parents need to be looking for and thinking about when choosing a day care provider for their children.
Baristanet: What got you interested in the Cutro murder case?
David Hechler: I’d written a book on child sexual abuse. A friend of mine—an expert on child abuse—knew that I was interested in sudden infant death syndrome and the difficulty of distinguishing SIDS from murder. She’d been consulted by the prosecutors in this case and knew that the initial diagnosis of the two babies who died was SIDS. After Gail Cutro was convicted, my friend told me about it and suggested that the trial illustrated just how tricky this issue can be. She was right.
Thinking about your initial view of the case from the articles in The State newspaper, is there anything about the case that changed in your mind after researching it for the book?
The twists and turns in this case were amazing. When I began my reporting, I knew that many parents who had used Gail Cutro’s day care had testified for her and still believed she was innocent. They believed the babies died of SIDS. Some people had a hard time believing two kids died of SIDS in the same home (and a third child had also been injured there). But Gail’s husband, who had a sometimes-violent temper, had also worked at the day care, and people thought he was the more likely culprit.
I went down there with an open mind, determined to do my own investigation. I interviewed everybody. I talked to all the lawyers. I gained access to all the documents. I spent more than 50 hours interviewing Gail Cutro in prison. I spent many more hours with her husband. But after I’d done all that, Gail Cutro’s conviction was overturned. She was tried a second time, which ended in a mistrial, and then a third time. I attended those trials.
In the end, I decided my book had to be about all of that, but it also had to be about safety in day care. How can parents ensure that their children are safe? What can they do to reduce the risks? What lessons can we learn from this cautionary tale? I wove answers into the fabric of my book. The people involved in the case talked about it, and I interviewed experts who added a great deal more.
What is the most important thing parents should be looking for when choosing a day care provider?
You want someone who really cares about children—who enjoys being with them. You also want someone who is well organized, has a good grounding in child development and is open and honest with children and their parents. The person must be willing to allow parents to visit unannounced.
What is the most common mistake parents make when evaluating a child care provider?
They judge a home day care by the cleanliness of the home. The home becomes a proxy for the quality of care the children receive. It’s a false correlation.
Obviously, most kids in day care don’t get killed — are there more common dangers that parents should be paying attention to?
You always start with the question: Is my child safe? And children can be hurt as a result of abuse or neglect without being killed, obviously. But beyond physical danger, there are other considerations. Is my child happy? Is my child thriving? If a day care provider takes your daughter and places her in front of a television for four hours every day and checks on her periodically, she may be safe—but this is not quality day care. She is not receiving the stimulation she needs to develop.
What made you decide to include the Appendix interviews?
I wanted my readers to have the opportunity to hear from experts who had not read my book—their perspective was not influenced by this particular case. And these experts have had opportunities over many years to advise parents who place their loved ones (not just children, but also the elderly and people with disabilities) in the care of strangers.
What do you want parents to get from the Appendix that isn’t in the body of the book?
They explained that the most important thing parents can do is monitor the care of their children. Because you can’t know as much about a day care when you are selecting one as you can learn after you’ve enrolled your child. That is when the real work begins. Both of my experts said that parents have to play detective—they have to ask questions and keep up with what’s going on in the day care. My experts also talked about the importance of parents being willing to change providers if they have a gut feeling that something is wrong.