Children die from abuse and
neglect when Texas day cares go
How a mother’s questions
about her baby’s death became
a search for the truth
By Andrea Ball
Austin American-Statesman | Dec. 6 2018
Shane Martinez was a chubby baby with a sweet, toothless smile who loved to be held and was learning to laugh before he died in a Houston day care center in the fall of 2016.
Bibs and Cribs Advance Learning Center seemed like the perfect place for the 3-month-old boy. It was a family-run, Christian-based day care center. It was conveniently located. It was licensed by state regulators, and the people there seemed devoted to the children.
So when doctors later said Shane died of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, at Bibs and Cribs, police believed that was all there was to it. So did state child care officials.
Shane’s mother didn’t. There must be more to it, Shawna Diaz thought.
There was. It took her a year of digging, but Diaz’s hunt for the truth ultimately triggered a new round of investigations D and the closure of the day care center.
“They lied about so many things,” Diaz said. “When I dropped him off, he was happy. Their answers didn’t make any sense.”
Until Shawna Diaz discovered the truth about her son’s death, Shane was listed among children who died in day care from pre-existing medical conditions, SIDS or natural deaths.
Only after officials reopened their case was Shane moved into the correct category. He is now listed among the nearly 90 Texas children the state says died as a result of abuse or neglect between 2007 and 2017.
The findings are part of the American-Statesman’s yearlong investigation into these and other problems at Texas child care facilities. The newspaper read thousands of documents, researched dozens of day care safety records, analyzed existing data and built its own database to find patterns and trends.
What the Statesman found was that dangerous conditions exist inside many Texas day care facilities, leaving hundreds of children in need of medical care and nearly 90 children dead as a result of abuse or neglect since 2007. In this series, the newspaper explores problems such as day care sexual abuse, deaths, injuries, illegal operations and state oversight. The newspaper also presents potential solutions to some of those problems.
State officials believe that cases like Shane’s are rare, but his death raises questions about whether the state is accurately recording the number of day care abuse and neglect deaths because sometimes caregivers lie to investigators.
“Unfortunately, it’s human nature to panic and want to be able to rationalize what happened,” said Kathryn Sibley with the Office of Child Safety, which reviews child deaths in Texas. “Sometimes, in their heart of hearts, they thought they were doing something good for this child, and it takes them a long time to understand they did something wrong.”
Sibley added that, while some caregivers might lie, she believes the truth usually emerges because they are questioned by so many people, including police, day care investigators and medical personnel.
But while it’s hard to definitively determine whether the state is undercounting neglect or abuse deaths, state records show that it’s not uncommon for caregivers to be untruthful, making it difficult for investigators, and parents, to find out what really happened.
Earlier this year, former Georgetown day care provider Holly Harrison pleaded no contest to injury to a child and was sentenced to 20 years for failing to quickly call 911 after she discovered 5-month-old Brody Havins not breathing at her in-home operation. Harrison admitted she lied to officials about whom she called and what she did before she dialed for help. Harrison also claimed the baby choked on his mitten, but medical experts cast doubt on that theory in court, saying the mitten was likely too big to fit down his airway. The baby died.
Day care records also show that such subterfuge is all too common in child injury cases as well. In 2017, a Plano day care facility lied to the parent and the state when a child hurt her foot; an Abilene day care employee lied after a maintenance person injured a child; and a caregiver who abused a child in Fort Worth tried to blame another child for the injury, according to state records.
“They could focus on Shane”
Shawna Diaz had the perfect pregnancy.
There was none of the morning sickness she suffered while pregnant with her oldest son, Tyler; none of the overall nausea that came with her daughter, Caylee. Shane was definitely a surprise — his siblings were 6 and 11 — but the family was delighted to have another baby on the way. Tyler and Caylee took turns reading baby books to Diaz’s belly, something that always made the unborn baby wiggle inside his mother.
When he was born, he didn’t cry.
“When they put him on my stomach, he looked right in my eyes,” she said. “He was just full of peace, totally happy.”
After her maternity leave, Diaz had to return to work part time at an oil and gas company, so she needed day care a few times a week. The people at Bibs and Cribs seemed sincerely devoted to the children. And while the day care center watched lots of other children, it only had a few infants in the nursery, staffers told her.
“I liked that,” Diaz said. “If there’s not a lot of babies, they could focus on Shane.”
Shane had only been to the child care center a handful of times before everything went wrong.
Diaz was at work Nov. 2, 2016, when she got a phone call around 4 p.m. Someone from Bibs and Cribs called to say that Shane wasn’t breathing and that emergency workers were trying to resuscitate him.
Diaz was dumbstruck. He’d been perfectly fine when she dropped him off that day, smiling, wearing a blue onesie and smelling fresh from his morning bath.
“Are you sure you’re talking about Shane?” she remembers asking.
Get to Cypress Fairbanks Medical Center, the person told her. After an agonizing hour in traffic, Diaz arrived at the hospital to find her baby unconscious, hooked up to a machine and covered in wires. A sheriff’s deputy was there, asking questions.
Did Shane have any medical conditions? No. How was he this morning? Fine.
Diaz, who had been joined by Shane’s father at the hospital, was in shock. She stood by her baby’s side, comforting him, holding his hand, telling him that she loved him. He did not respond.
Shane was flown to Texas Children’s Hospital West Campus in Katy. A machine kept his heart beating, but it was too late, doctors said. He’d been without oxygen too long. One of the day care workers told Diaz that Shane had been discovered covered in blood from his nose and vomit. A doctor suggested it might be a sign of suffocation, Diaz said.
Around 2 a.m. on Nov. 3, 2016, Shane’s parents let doctors turn off the machines and pull the wires from his body. Crying, they took turns holding him. Diaz was devastated and confused.
Then she got angry.
Training and safety
Texas children who have died as a result of abuse or neglect have perished in all manner of ways, including blunt force trauma, scalding, fire and choking. Some were strangled by straps in car seats, left in hot vehicles or smothered in adult beds. Other babies were laid on their bellies, something doctors have warned for years can lead to SIDS or suffocation.
The numbers strongly suggest a correlation between lack of training and deaths.
Nearly half of the abuse and neglect deaths — 42 — occurred in illegal day care sites that operate underground, where state oversight is impossible, safety rules might not be followed and training is likely nonexistent. An additional 29 occurred in the state’s legal, but least-regulated types of child cares.
State statistics show that children are least likely to die in licensed child care facilities, where employees often get more rigorous training and state inspections are more frequent. Just 17 of the 88 deaths occurred in such facilities.
And experts stress training is critical to preventing the single largest cause of deaths at child care facilities: unsafe sleeping conditions. Between 2007 and 2017, 42 of the 88 abuse and neglect deaths were sleep-related. The single largest number of sleep deaths during that time, 20, occurred in illegal child cares where training might not have happened.
For years, doctors — not knowing the risks — told parents to put babies on their stomachs. But the medical community eventually realized that placing babies on their bellies, as well as putting soft bedding in cribs and letting infants sleep in car seats where they can be strangled by straps, were all linked to infant deaths.
Now trained caregivers are taught to put babies to sleep on their backs, where the threat of SIDS or accidental suffocation is lower.
Some caregivers engage in unsafe sleep practices because they are older and had their children before the public campaigns, Sibley said. People also apply adult standards of comfort — soft bedding, nice pillows — to infants when that’s not what they need.
“There’s a lot of misinformation on how infants should sleep,” Sibley said. “Sometimes it’s, ‘My mother put me to sleep that way,’ or, ‘My grandmother did this when my mom was little.’”
Katherine Glenn-Applegate, associate professor of education at Ohio Wesleyan University, said providers who don’t have training might consider some rules arbitrary, such as the requirement to put babies to sleep on their backs.
“It just seems like government red tape,” Glenn-Applegate said. “But it’s a matter of life and death.”
Bibs and Cribs caregivers had that training.
Sleep deaths in licensed centers are highly unusual. Only one of the 42 sleep-related deaths between 2007 and 2017 occurred in a licensed center, where workers might receive more training than the state requires.
“The training for the in-home provider, the space that’s available for the care of the kids, the general safety of the home environment can be more dangerous for children than in a center,” said David Brown, professor of early childhood education at Texas A&M University-Commerce.
Stephanie Rubin with Texans Care for Children, a child safety advocacy group, said licensed child care centers leaders tend to receive more training than those at in-home centers.
“With just one adult on-site and little extra money to pay for training, it can be a strain for in-home child care educators to keep up with professional development,” she added.
Sometimes, the owners are parents themselves who are trying to make extra money by taking in a few kids.
“Good, smart people will say, ‘This person is a parent herself; therefore, she knows how to take care of a group of children,’” Glenn-Applegate said.
What really happened?
Shane’s death immediately triggered investigations by the Harris County sheriff’s office and the Department of Family and Protective Services.
When a child is abused or neglected or dies at a day care center, state protective services investigators are assigned to the case. They arrive on scene, talk to the child care employees or any witnesses. Investigators speak to family members, law enforcement officers and medical providers. They listen to 911 calls, examine documents and interview people — numerous times, if necessary.
All of that was done in Shane’s case, state documents show D.
Bibs and Cribs owner Audris Haynes and her daughter Nataki Griffin, who was the day care center’s director, were very clear on their version of events. Neither returned the Statesman’s calls for comment.
Shane, they told investigators, was a little fussy that day, according to Department of Family and Protective Services investigation records. They fed him a few ounces from his bottle, burped him and told investigators they put him to sleep on his back in a crib as state rules require. Haynes said she was changing another baby’s diaper when she looked around and saw blood coming from Shane’s nose.
Griffin, who said she was in the toddler room at the time, heard her mother call out for help. Griffin rushed in the room and saw blood, vomit and formula pouring out of the child’s nose, the investigation states. Griffin wiped it away with a sheet, placed the baby on a changing table and began CPR. Haynes called 911, and they continued CPR until an ambulance arrived.
Haynes told investigators that they had not put the baby on his belly that day. Bibs and Cribs had cameras, but Haynes said they only had them to catch people stealing from them at night.
“She said the cameras were never there to watch them during the day, they only had them for security, and they were not on at the time,” the investigator wrote. “She said the cameras also make a clicking noise so they turn them off when they come in the mornings.”
Cameras are not required at child care facilities.
The day care center’s version of events did not raise red flags with investigators. The baby was purportedly on his back. No toys or bedding were found in the crib. Haynes had said she was in the room with Shane and that the infant was being supervised. There were no signs of abuse, such as bruises or scratches. Without any video or conflicting information from other day care workers, there was nothing to raise suspicions.
Bibs and Cribs’ record over the years was peppered with violations — four dozen over seven years — for things such as failing to supervise children closely or not having enough caregivers on hand. But they had never been cited for putting babies on their bellies.
“At this time there is no concern from myself or law enforcement that the day care contributed to the child’s death,” the state investigator wrote when she concluded the investigation several months later.
Diaz refused to believe it. Why did the baby have blood and vomit on him? Why were the cameras off? What really happened?
Never happen again
Determined to dig deeper into her son’s death, Diaz hired Houston lawyer Joe Alexander to file a lawsuit against Bibs and Cribs.
Over the next year, Alexander and Diaz pored over Bibs and Cribs’ records, the autopsy report, the state child care investigation. They hired someone to look at Shane’s medical records. But they couldn’t find anything to contradict the day care operators’ explanation of what happened.
As a last-ditch effort, Alexander decided to depose Haynes D and Griffin. Diaz insisted on being there, but she didn’t expect much to come of it.
“They had a year to get their story together,” she said.
But as they sat at the table with the camera rolling, new facts D began to emerge. Griffin, not Haynes, was actually the first to discover Shane with blood on his nose, according to a copy of the deposition provided to the Statesman.
She discovered the problem when she was checking on the other babies in the nursery. When she turned her attention to Shane, she said she knew something was wrong.
“And I looked at him,” Griffin said. “I was like ‘something’s kind of strange.’ So, I you know, rubbed him (on the) back with my one finger and just looking, nothing. So I said let me go around and looked that’s what I saw it.” (sic)
“So was he on his stomach?” he asked.
“Yes,” Griffin answered.
“And had he been on his stomach the entire time you were monitoring him?” Alexander asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
And just like that, everything made sense. Shane hadn’t been on his back like they had said a year earlier. He was on his stomach, leaving the infant vulnerable to SIDS or suffocation.
“That was the moment right there,” Diaz said. “My body got so hot. I was sweating sitting there.”
Alexander asked Griffin why she had lied.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “Maybe I panicked.”
Shortly afterward, the day care center settled the lawsuit with Diaz. But that wasn’t enough for her. She and her lawyer contacted Child Protective Services and the Harris County sheriff’s office, telling them that Griffin and Haynes had changed their stories about what happened to Shane that day.
CPS re-investigated the case and determined the day care center had neglected Shane. Bibs and Cribs voluntarily shut down in February 2018.
Meanwhile, Harris County sheriff’s spokesman Jason Spencer said investigators have sent the case to the district attorney’s office to decide whether to press charges against Haynes and Griffin. Criminal proceedings in such cases are not unusual, often resulting in charges such as injury to a child or criminally negligent homicide.
Diaz says she wants the day care operators to pay for their actions, but mostly she just wants to prevent other families from going through what she did with Shane.
“You don’t get over that,” Diaz said. “I wish he was here and wonder what he would look like. I don’t want this to ever happen to anyone else again.”
Dan Keemahill contributed material