Parents and others concerned about recent deaths of children in day care filled a Hawaii Senate committee hearing room Monday to support bills that would toughen sanctions against negligent operators and bolster safe sleeping rules meant to prevent sudden infant death syndrome.
“There should be a way to enforce rules,” said Andrea Jani, a mother of two who testified to the joint hearing of two Senate committees. “If there are no repercussions, the policy is useless.”
Senators responded by approving both measures. The joint hearing included the Senate Human Services Committee and the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Committee.
In November, Civil Beat detailed the case of Wiley Muir, a 4-month-old who died in a Honolulu day care in 2014. Wiley’s mother, Cynthia King, discovered discrepancies in the day care owner’s account of Wiley’s whereabouts when he stopped breathing.
She also found out that the day care operator failed to buy the type of portable crib she had asked for. Instead, he was sleeping in a baby bounce chair.
One of the bills considered Monday, Senate Bill 20, would require day care operators to put infants younger than a year on their backs to sleep, as recommended by experts to avoid SIDS. The only exception would be when parents got a waiver from a health care professional.
The bill requires day care operators to discuss safe sleep practices with parents, who would be required to sign a statement that they had received a copy of the policy.
Day care operators and employees would be required to complete regular training conducted by DHS. They also would have to report any death of a child under the age of 1 to DHS.
King and others addressed the committees Monday, encouraging them to act to prevent further day care deaths from SIDS and related causes.
“The importance of putting babies to sleep on their backs has been really clear for decades,” King said. She added that “making safe sleep policy into law will prevent the needless deaths of other babies.”
Others wrote to the committee before the hearing.
“We cannot let another family suffer the consequences due to the lack of common sense policies,” wrote Afsheen Siddiqi.
Civil Beat reported in November that the state Department of Human Services had failed to write administrative rules requiring infants to be put down to sleep on their backs despite a 2013 law that assumed that the department would do so.
The department had opposed an initial version of the 2013 bill, saying there was no need to put safe sleep requirements in statute when they could be included in administrative rules, whose flexibility would allow DHS to keep up with the latest research.
At the time, backers of the law said that Hawaii was one of only seven states that had not passed such a law.
DHS officials told Civil Beat that they planned to incorporate safe sleep rules into a planned overhaul of child care regulations to meet federal standards. Those rules have now been written. DHS has scheduled a public hearing on the proposed amendments on Feb. 6.
The department says that, despite the lack of regulations, it’s been supporting safe sleep practices for more than a decade, including initial reviews of day cares that include education about safe sleep practices and verification that they are being followed.
Dana Balansag, DHS child care program administrator, told senators Monday that, as in 2013, the department opposes the legislation. The rules the department has written are more comprehensive, she said.
“If the rules get done, that will be a win for the state and all the mothers and fathers who want to see better regulation.” — Sen. Josh Green
Rather than having DHS train day care operators on safe sleep rules as called for in the bill, she said, the new rules will have community agencies do it. And current rules already require day care operators to go over safe sleep guidelines with parents, one of the provisions in the proposed statute, she said.
Sen. Josh Green, the chairman of the human services committee and a primary author of both bills, said SB 20 could be shelved if the department follows through with finalizing its proposed administrative rules.
But the bill will serve as a failsafe if the rules don’t go ahead as planned, he said.
“This is sometimes the pressure that’s needed between the legislative branch and the executive branch in Hawaii,” Green said in an interview after the hearing. “If the rules get done, that will be a win for the state and all the mothers and fathers who want to see better regulation.”
The second bill considered Monday, Senate Bill 21, would increase the penalties for those who violate child care rules from $1,000 to $5,000 for a first violation, and from $3,000 to $10,000 for succeeding violations.
The original bill also would have made it a misdemeanor to knowingly or recklessly violate day care rules. But the committees amended the bill Monday to make the offenses the lowest level of felony. That way, proponents said, violations will show up on day care operators’ criminal background checks in case they try to get other jobs involving vulnerable people.
Most or those who spoke at the hearing or submitted comments in writing supported the bill.
“My family lost a precious member because a woman we trusted took advantage of us,” wrote Kimberly Fujita. “You would think she would be investigated and charged, but no. Due to relaxed standards people like this, people who commit manslaughter, get away.”