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Heed day care safety lessons

The most enduring strength of the United States might be its ability to correct mistakes, and that goes for both the private and public sectors. The process amounts to a policy "peer review": A business or government engages in a practice. The practice succeeds or fails. The press shines a spotlight; and the public learns the result, either of a "best practice" or policy to avoid.

On the life-and-death subject of child safety in day care centers, the Star Tribune's spotlight is sending out a bright and illuminating beam.

Parents, day care providers and regulators should take a look.

"A Star Tribune examination of hundreds of public records shows that the number of children dying in child care has nearly doubled in the past five years -- reaching the rate of one per month," the Minneapolis paper reported earlier this month.

"Nearly all the deaths have occurred at in-home providers (also known as family care), and most involved a child sleeping. The newspaper's investigation also found more unsafe-sleep citations, such as lack of training or children in unsafe sleep positions, at in-home settings than at large child care centers.

"The Department of Human Services (DHS), the state's top child care regulator, is treating the rise in deaths as a public health crisis."

The first story in the series goes on from there. One of its biggest takeaways is the difference that "safe sleep" training can make for providers and parents alike.

Safe sleep training teaches caregivers that "babies sleep safer on their backs," that firm bedding is safer than soft -- and that these and other guidelines work. "Since the Back to Sleep campaign began in 1994, the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome rate in the United States has declined by more than 50 percent," the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development notes.

In Minnesota as recently as 2000, an alarmingly high percentage of SIDS deaths took place in child care facilities. But "in 2001, the state began requiring all licensed providers to get training in SIDS prevention." the Star Tribune story reports.

"The results were dramatic: The number of deaths in child-care settings dropped significantly within a year."

Why might the number now be going back up?

On Sunday, a second story in the series offered some answers.

One of them is overcrowding. "A Star Tribune investigation of licensing violations and child care deaths shows that eight of 52 deaths since 2007 occurred in licensed homes that had been cited for capacity violations, either before or at the time children died," the newspaper reported.

Overcrowding pulls providers in too many directions and keeps infants from getting the attention they need. In one case, "the judge called the (infant's) death a 'tragic example of why the laws and rules on licensed capacity' exist," the Star Tribune reported.

Another issue: the differences between Minnesota's 1,500 licensed child care centers and 11,500 licensed day care homes. Home day care usually is much less expensive than care in day care centers, but staffing can be an issue: "The risk created by too many children might be greater in family child care settings, where one provider can get spread thin by a large number of children," the story suggests.

All in all, the series offers vital and informative guidelines on the key subject of day care safety. Minnesotans should learn from this policy peer review.

Tom Dennis writes for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.