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Toddler's death highlights debate over fences for day cares - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Toddler's death highlights debate over fences for day cares

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

"We cannot let our guard down," said Ellen Drolette of Sunshine Daydream Child Care. "We have to keep our eye on these children all of the time."

Drolette has made a career caring for kids. She says for more than two decades, she's been able to keep children safe without a fenced yard. Soon that may be changing for Vermont's 770 registered home child care providers, just like Drolette.

"There's no fencing regulation there now, but there will be in the new rules," said Reeva Murphy of the Vermont Department for Children and Families.

DCF spent more than a year drafting new licensing regulations. The goal-- clearer guidelines on a range of child protection topics from safe sleep to fencing, which topped the charts as the most controversial change.

The proposal says: "The outdoor play area shall be fenced or otherwise protected from traffic and other hazards. Fencing or natural barriers, such as hedges or other clear land boundaries, shall prevent children from exiting and allow for safe supervision of outdoor play."

"We all feel like everybody's kid is someone we need to protect," Murphy said.

Earlier this month, 3-year-old Parker Berry drowned in a brook behind his Waterbury day care. Elephant in the Field did not have a fence to protect the toddler from the icy water, leaving many asking why fences were not already required for registered home providers. The little boy's death hit the child care community hard.

"We all put ourselves in the place of that provider," Drolette said. "We put our heart in this job and these children are our families."

But Drolette believes supervision protects children, not fences. And she worries added regulations will make caregivers complacent. She and other critics say fences are expensive and the high cost will end up keeping kids cooped up in smaller outdoor play areas. Opponents also argue the proposed rules are unfair to providers who live in apartments or public housing and can't install fences.

"Are we just going to say, sorry, you can't have a program? We're going to be taking a large number of children that are in programs their own language, their own culture, in their own neighborhoods and we'll be taking that away from them," Drolette said.

The rule revision project has been in the works for two-and-a-half years. The proposal will be presented to a legislative committee next month and could take effect as soon as September.

We still don't know exactly how or when Elephant in the Field lost track of Parker. His family says he never should have been able to get close to the water.

The proposed regulations only say there has to be a fenced in play area somewhere on the property, not that the closed area be connected to the home.

Reporter: Jennifer Costa: If these rules had already been in place, would it have made a difference?

Reeva Murphy: That's impossible to say in this case.

Current and proposed regulations do not mandate headcounts, but they do say all kids must be within reach and earshot at all times. She says when a child wanders off, it's a major violation.

Elephant in the Field remains closed. DCF's investigation in regulatory compliance should wrap up next week. That division has the ability to pull the day care's license. But DCF's probe into child negligence or maltreatment, which could result in an individual person being barred from caring for children, will likely take longer. And the Vermont State Police are still looking at the case for possible criminal charges.

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