More than 1 million children attend day care in Texas. While cases of child injury and death sporadically make the news, no one has ever comprehensively investigated safety issues inside Texas day cares. The American-Statesman’s investigative team set out to remedy this, and in the process discovered a dysfunctional system where serious injury, deaths caused by abuse or neglect and even sexual abuse are far more common than the public is led to believe by state officials. In “Unwatched,” our reporters showed that the state’s lax enforcement, which features paltry fines and a plethora of second chances, has failed to alter caregiver behavior before injury or death. The investigation laid bare the human toll exacted by the state’s decision to deny funding for child care that could give low-income parents access to higher-quality day care. Reporters made more than 100 public information requests, dug into thousands of pages of state records and spoke with dozens of families, experts and state officials. They analyzed 40,000 day care violations and built a database showing that hundreds of operations have been cited for failing to tell both parents and the state when children are hurt. They faced resistance from state officials, who tried to deny access to hundreds of reports into day care deaths. The Statesman sued the state for the records, finally winning access to the reports through a settlement agreement in December. Those records will allow us to shed more light on what is happening in Texas day cares. One of the goals of the project was to arm parents with information and help them choose safe day cares. We built a searchable database, using three sets of data we obtained from the state, to give parents more visibility into violation, injury and punishment history at Texas day cares, information that goes beyond what the state makes publicly available on its website. The project has already brought about change, with more on the horizon: After reporters started asking questions, the state reversed course and is now seeking to reinstate a special unit that ferrets out illegal, off-the-books day cares, where nearly half of abuse and neglect deaths occur. Shortly after “Unwatched” published, two dozen advocacy groups called on lawmakers and state officials to address the problems exposed by the investigation.
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Submitted by John Bridges.