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Apprehensive parents try to understand

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / September 14, 2011

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For a brief moment Wakina Flemon panicked. She had just learned that a child had been found dead inside a van outside a day care in the city, and her heart dropped.

She thought of her 5-year-old daughter, whom Flemon sends off by van each weekday to day care, and she had to know her daughter was OK.

“I thought it was my child,’’ Flemon said. She immediately called home and found that all of her four children were fine. “It’s scary to find out that a child was on that bus for so long.’’

As a city looks for answers in a horrific toddler death, anguished parents and wary day-care providers tried to comprehend the loss of the 17-month-old boy. The discovery of his body outside the center at 18 Floyd St. in Dorchester is every parent’s worst nightmare.

For many working parents, the death laid bare the fragility they can feel each weekday when they pack baby bags, dress their young children, and put them on a bus or van heading to day care.

“Every parent worries about their children when they go to day care,’’ said Diane Fuller, a 38-year-old Dorchester mother of four, including a 1-year-old son. “You expect to get a call that your child is sick. But not this.’’

Parents made extra calls yesterday to their day care providers to check that their children had arrived safely. Some could barely hide their pain and sorrow for a mother whose overwhelming grief was all too easy to understand. And some said prayers for the baby boy who was left on the van all day while cars drove by and people conducted business nearby.

“I’m scared more than anything else,’’ said Otis McCain, a 38-year-old father, as he pushed his 18-month-old daughter, Oniya, on a swing at a playground on Talbot Avenue. “These drivers need to be more responsible and check the van after they drop the kids off. ’’

Many people interviewed yesterday said they understand that tragic accidents can happen even among the most cautious and that it can take just one moment of neglect for everything to go wrong.

“The whole thing is really sad,’’ said Marla Dickerson, who squeezed daughter Jahanae a little more tightly after the 9-year-old got off a school bus on Blue Hill Avenue yesterday. “Everyone needs to be more aware. If it is your job, you have to be more vigilant about checking to see if they are all off the bus.’’

Sherri Killins, commissioner of the state’s Department of Early Education and Care, said this week that transportation companies that ferry children are required to file a written plan for safety and supervision with her department indicating they will check attendance each time children get on and off a van and will also sweep the van to make sure it is empty at the end of the trip.

The department licenses 12,000 early childhood education and care programs that provide services for children shortly after birth to age 13, Killins said yesterday.

For many parents who do not have cars or flexible jobs, early childhood programs offered at centers or in homes are welcome relief.

In a wide room at Tender Heart Day Care Center, a toddler crawling on a clean, carpeted floor lifted his round head and smiled. Infants were covered in warm, soft blankets in cribs along a wall. And an older woman with graying hair sat in a rocking chair, while other staff members kept their eyes on the babies.

Levon Shepherd, the center’s assistant director, said Tender Heart serves single mothers and working women who need a helping hand.

“These parents need these centers, they need transportation, and they need assistance,’’ she said.

At Little Leader Prep School nearby, Nancy Wallace, a 30-year provider, said the loss of the child is so heart-wrenching it felt like losing her own child.

“It’s personal for me because I have worked with children all my life,’’ she said. “When something like this happens, it’s so tragic and it hits home.’’

Pearline James, a 65-year-old who runs a home day care, said that after 30 years she is ready to retire next year and cited the numerous challenges in caring for other people’s children, often for long hours.

“I’m sure if someone had called at some point during that day - whether it was a provider or anybody - then maybe this would have never happened,’’ she said.

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.