Baby’s death puts home child-care regulations under microscope

The death of a 14-month-old girl and the arrest of her daycare operator has child-care advocates raising concerns about the regulation and monitoring of private home daycares.

The owner of April’s Daycare, charged Friday with second-degree murder after the death of Duy-An Nguyen, was operating an unlicensed child-care business out of her Mississauga home.

It’s perfectly legal to run an unlicensed daycare in Ontario so long as the caregiver is minding five or fewer children — not including their own — under the age of 10.

But critics say there is no way to properly monitor what goes on in these homes, and the only way to know if someone is breaking the rules is if a complaint is made against them.

“We don’t let people run restaurants without licences,” said Marnie Flaherty, president of the Home Childcare Association of Ontario. “Why are we letting private homes with children in there run a business without regulations?”

The Mississauga tragedy began just after 4 p.m. Wednesday when police received a 911 call from a home on Asta Dr.

Paramedics rushed Duy-An Nguyen to a local hospital. The child was transported to Sick Kids where, two days later, she was taken off life support.

April Luckese, 35, was first charged Wednesday with aggravated assault endangering a life. She appeared in court on Thursday, and was released on $15,000 bail.

Following Duy-An’s death on Friday, Luckese was arrested again at her home and later charged with second-degree murder.

As two Peel police detectives led her from the townhouse where she runs her daycare, Luckese hid her face with the hood of a blue ski jacket.

She was held by police overnight and is expected to appear in a Brampton bail court on Saturday.

It’s not clear what happened to Duy-An at April’s Daycare. One police source told the Star the child couldn’t be woken up from a nap.

The executive director of Kiddie Kare Inc., a licensed agency that trains and monitors child-care workers, confirmed that it dropped April’s Daycare in 2007 because it exceeded the number of infants allowed, even after a warning.

“April was able to get all these babies and I couldn’t have it,” said Janice Luckese, who said she is a distant cousin of April Luckese, through marriage but hasn’t had any contact with her in years.

Luckese has been operating as an unlicensed child-care provider ever since, Janice said.

One neighbour, who didn’t want to be named, said she interviewed Luckese four months ago when she was seeking child care for her 1-year-old son.

The neighbour was impressed with Luckese, who she says had her early childhood education certification and 15 years of experience. But when it came down to it, she took her son elsewhere.

“She just had way too many kids,” said the neighbour, who remembers Luckese was already looking after five children under the age of 3 at the time.

“When I see her walking sometimes she has a quad stroller, four children in there, and two or three walking beside her.”

Flaherty said she would like to see all home daycares working with a licensed agency that offers support to caregivers and makes regular visits to ensure health, safety and quality standards are being met.

There are about 70 licensed home child-care agencies, like Kiddie Kare, in the province. Other examples in Mississauga include Family Day Care Services, Wee Watch and Caring for Kids.

The government gives licences to agencies, not individuals. When individuals work under those agencies, they’re considered licensed and must follow the province’s Day Nurseries Act — and more stringent rules.

Licensed child-care providers can care for no more than two children under 2 years, and three under 3 years. Unlike with private operators, this includes their own children.

“It’s what an individual could probably handle,” said Flaherty.

Flaherty said she would prefer all child-care providers be licensed but, since they aren’t, she doesn’t understand why the Day Nurseries Act only applies to licensed child care in Ontario.

“The regulations have been developed for a reason. Why wouldn’t we just assume that those regulations should be the same in the private or agency sector?”

Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky said the issue is more nuanced. Just because an individual is providing unlicensed child care in their home, she said, doesn’t mean the quality of care is less.

“I am aware of people who provide services for families who are not licensed and the families have reported to me that they’re very satisfied with the care,” she said, adding that the onus of ensuring good practices are in place belongs to the parents.

“It’s very important for parents to pay some attention to the service that they engaged for providing care for their children,” she said.

When asked why unlicensed caregivers aren’t subject to the same restriction of no more than five children set out in the Day Nurseries Act, Dombrowsky said: “There is always some debate in our communities about what the right number is.

“Our government has been very firm in the position that five is the right number. We still allow families that choice to engage in regulated or non-regulated service.”

The business of regulating those who look after our children is tricky.

Grandmothers look after family members, at times for money. And neighbours build trusting relationships, said Dombrowsky, adding that in small communities it would be harder for those wanting to care for children in their homes to find a licensed agency.

For Flaherty, the issue isn’t family and friends, but individuals opening their homes to strangers and advertising on the Internet.

“If you’re actually opening your home for business then I think we need to think about regulating standards which are there for safety,” said Flaherty.

In a pre-Christmas version of the April’s Daycare website, the operator described herself as a “mother of two boys offering child care in my home. Safe, loving and nurturing home environment, over 15 years experience working with kids.

“CPR and First Aid certified. Smoke free home. Nutritous (sic) lunch and snacks provided. Fully fenced yard with sand box, slide and many other toys. References available.”

April’s Daycare charged $700 per child (the term wasn’t stated) and had openings for infants and toddlers. Children up to kindergarten age were accepted.

A user comment posted last April 29 extolled the daycare’s “safe, clean environment with stimulating activities.” The website has since been taken down.

Janice Luckese said she had been in April’s home “many times” before.

“I’ve witnessed her with the children,” she said. “If it’s true, it really surprises me.”

Had April Luckese stayed on with Kiddie Kare past 2007, she would have been subject to monthly unannounced visits from a trained home visitor. Janice said the agency will visit more often if there are concerns.

Money also plays a factor in private child care, said Janice.

“They can charge whatever they want, more or less,” she said. “Whatever the market allows.”

“If you can charge $200 (each) per week for five babies, that’s a lot of money,” said Flaherty.

It’s something that’s appealing to both providers looking to make more money and families unable to pay agency fees.

Dombrowsky noted government subsidies are available for lower income families looking for licensed child care.

But Janice said there simply isn’t enough money to go around.

“I’d like some sort of registry of all people doing home child care and have a universal system set up where everyone had to follow the same rules and regulations across the board.”

With files from Jim Wilkes, Bob Mitchell, Dan Robson, Kate Allen and Donovan Vincent

Daycare options

Unlicensed: An individual may provide unlicensed child care in their home so long as they care for five or fewer children under 10. This does not include their own children.

With more than five children, not including their own, the individual must obtain a licence.

Licensed: The province does not license individual home child-care providers. Caregivers work with one of 70 licensed agencies in Ontario and are licensed under them.

Parents can look through the licensed and unlicensed child-care options on the education ministry’s website at: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/childcare/finding.html

The 1990 Day Nurseries Act governs licensed child care in Ontario. The act states that no more than two children under age 2 and no more than three kids under age 3 can be cared for by one person at any time. This includes the caregiver’s own children. Caregivers are paid by the agency.

Investments in child care have increased in recent years, according to an education ministry spokesperson. The McGuinty government has increased funding from $532.3 million in 2003-04 to $852.2 million in 2009-10.

Subsidies are provided to families who need financial assistance for licensed child care. But critics say there’s not enough money to go around, forcing parents to look for cheaper options.

In 2007, the owner of an unlicensed Toronto daycare centre was charged with criminal negligence after a young boy was bitten more than 18 times by another child. Three people, none of whom had CPR, first aid or early childhood education training, were supervising 26 children.

Deal saves Zahra’s stepmum from death

THE US stepmother of Zahra Baker struck a deal that saved her from execution or a life sentence, US agencies reported today.

The deal, which has left local residents outraged, covers her conviction of an offence related to the 10-year-old Australian girl’s death.

North Carolina prosecutors agreed to the deal with Elisa Baker in return for her help with the murder investigation.

Soon after the deal was made, Zahra’s dismembered remains and prosthetic leg were found by search teams in various bush locations outside the town of Hickory, where Zahra lived with her biological father, Adam Baker, and stepmother Elisa Baker.

The 10-year-old was born in Wagga Wagga but moved to the US with her father.

It is believed Elisa Baker led police to Zahra’s remains and prosthetic leg.

Zahra was reported missing on October 9 and Elisa Baker was arrested a day later. She has been held in a North Carolina jail since, on an obstruction of justice charge related to a fake ransom note and charges unrelated to Zahra’s disappearance.

Hickory police have not charged anyone in connection with Zahra’s death, but have not ruled out Elisa Baker and Adam Baker as suspects.

Under the deal, reported by North Carolina TV station WSOC, prosecutors agreed not to charge Elisa with first-degree murder, meaning that if she’s convicted, she would not face the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

Outraged locals point to the horrific life Zahra, who had her leg amputated following bone cancer, was forced to endure.

“This child suffered from cancer. I don’t think that a second-degree murder charge is justice,” Sherrie Rowell-Monnell, who visited a memorial dedicated to Zahra, told the Hickory Record newspaper.

“This child’s body was dismembered and put in awful places. I think if I had a decision, it would be first-degree murder and the death penalty.”

Woman admits giving marijuana to toddler

AN American woman has admitted giving her two-year-old daughter marijuana and using her mobile phone to record the child smoking it.

Hamilton County court officials say 21-year-old Jessica Gamble of suburban Cincinnati pleaded guilty today to corruption of another with drugs and tampering with evidence. Prosecutors dropped a child endangering charge in exchange for the plea.

Prosecutors say Gamble gave the toddler marijuana and used her mobile phone to record video of the girl smoking in August.

The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that Gamble’s lawyer told the judge that Gamble has a history of mental illness and learning disorders.

Gamble could get up to six and a half years at her sentencing on December 16. She could have faced five additional years on the dropped charge.

Bermudez made up confession, Crown says

Johnny Bermudez outside Ontario Superior Court on University Ave. on Nov. 4, 2009

Johnny Bermudez says he has made “peace with God” for killing 2-year-old Emmily Lucas. But he’s not quite ready for penance.

Bermudez was on the stand as a witness Tuesday in the trial of Erika Mendieta, charged with second-degree murder in the 2003 beating death of her daughter, Emmily.

Bermudez, Mendieta’s live-in boyfriend at the time, claims he did it.

But when Bob Richardson, Mendieta’s lawyer, asked him to waive his rights under the Canada Evidence Act — which says anything he says as a witness can’t be used to prosecute him later — Bermudez refused.

“So you do have the guts to come here today and say that you killed a baby, and tell us how,” Richardson charged. “But not to step up to the plate all the way? Is that right?”

“I guess so,” Bermudez said.

The Crown contends that Mendieta beat Emmily in a fit of frustration and rage when she was late to pick up her four other children from school on Nov. 13, 2003.

The toddler had slipped into unconsciousness, suffered convulsions and was covered in bruises when an ambulance took to her hospital. She died 10 days later of severe brain injuries.

Bermudez told the court he slapped and pushed Emmily twice while Mendieta was out. He admitted to the fatal beating last year, too, when Mendieta first faced the charges. That hearing ended in a mistrial.

“I’m here for myself,” Bermudez said Tuesday. “I don’t care what anyone here in this courtroom thinks of me.”

He was agitated and uncooperative on the stand, as Crown Attorney Allison MacPherson asked him to recall basic details about the day he claims to have struck Emmily.

“I don’t recall,” he said again and again. “There were so many things going on in my life, I don’t even know what the truth was,” Bermudez pined, blaming issues with alcohol, drugs, and the police for his fuzzy memory.

MacPherson said Bermudez made up his story to protect Mendieta, knowing his confession couldn’t be used against him later.

“You weren’t cleansing your soul,” she said. “I don’t think you ever had a crisis of conscience.”

The trial continues Nov. 22.

Spanish priest held on child porn charges

A PRIEST in Spain has been arrested for alleged possession of around 21,000 computer files containing child pornography.

The 52-year-old, who was not identified, was detained on Wednesday and has been released on bail by a judge, who ordered him to appear before him every two weeks, the media said, quoting prosecutors.

He was held after police allegedly found computers files containing pornographic images of children, in his parish church of Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion in the eastern town of Vilafames. The 21,000 files occupied some 600 gigabytes of space.

The diocese in which the church is based, Segorbe-Castellon, said after talking to the priest, it had decided to suspend him from his duties, the newspaper El Pais reported in its online edition.

He has been arrested “for an alleged crime of child pornography via the Internet,” the paper quoted a statement from the diocese as saying.

“If the accusation is true, this is something that hurts us deeply, that we sincerely regret and that we reject unreservedly.”

The diocese expressed its “total readiness to clarify the facts before the courts.” At the same time, it will offer the priest “the necessary means for a fair defence.”

Spain has thus far largely escaped the paedophile scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church in other parts of Europe and the United States

Beaten baby dies from injuries, police say

A baby boy who was allegedly beaten by his mother’s 21-year-old boyfriend last September died Tuesday evening, police said.

About 20 family members circled around Adriel Garcia as he took his last breath around 10 p.m. at the Hospital for Sick Children.

He was admitted on Sept. 12 after sustaining serious injuries the day before.  According to Jack Grilo, the boy’s great uncle, Adriel was declared brain dead with only 5% of his brain still functioning.  The boy’s aunt spoke in a sombre voice as she recounted the night Adriel died.

“I had to say goodbye pretty much, but everybody is happy at least they were around for his last breath,” said Izilda Da Silva. “Everybody is trying to cope with it as best as they can. It’s not an easy situation.”

A Canada-wide warrant was issued by police last September for Ronnie Munoz-Hernandez, the mother’s boyfriend. He was charged with aggravated assault. However, his whereabouts continue to be unknown.

Staff Sgt. Richard McKeown of 12 Division said Munoz-Hernandez’s charges will likely upgrade to second-degree murder or manslaughter. Da Silva said she was wary of her sister’s 21-year-old boyfriend when they first met a couple of months ago. “I didn’t like him, but it was not up to me,” she said.

Asked about the reason why, she replied: “There was just a bad vibe.”  Munoz-Hernandez was living with the mother and child when the assault occurred, said Grilo.  On Sept. 22, police arrested and charged 33-year-old Juan Neira-Penaloza as an accessory to aggravated assault for allegedly helping the suspect evade investigators.

Da Silva declined to reveal the mother’s name, but said her sister was coping.  “She’s dealing with it. I mean it’s not easy losing a child,” she said. “There are no words or anything anybody can really do to make this process any easier.” For Da Silva, she said she is heartbroken Adriel will no longer have play dates with her two-year-old daughter.

“He was in love with her and they were close. He was such a happy baby,” she said.

“He was a fighter until the end.”

Victorian girl, 11, gives birth

AN 11-year-old girl from a country Victorian town gave birth to a child this year, allegedly to a 30-year-old man.

The man, a family friend of the girl’s grandparents, is currently in custody facing 18 criminal charges.

He has been charged with rape, sexual penetration of a child under 16 and assault with intent and was remanded in custody pending trial.

The girl gave birth to the baby at an outer-suburban hospital.

The alleged father was arrested on September 9 after police and the Department of Human Services (DHS) were alerted to the case, a police spokeswoman said.

It is believed the DHS had not had any issues involving the girl or her family until the department was alerted to her pregnancy.

Child molesting cop merits 10-12 years, Crown says

Former OPP officer Robert Lewis leaves court in Orangeville on Monday after his sentencing hearing on his child molestation conviction.

A former OPP officer who sexually molested boys for most of his policing career deserves 10 to 12 years behind bars, the prosecution argued Monday.

Robert Lewis, a hulking man who committed his crimes throughout 25 of his 30 years on the force, has never admitted guilt, expressed remorse or taken responsibility for his actions, Crown prosecutor Mary Ellen Cullen told a sentencing hearing at Superior Court in Orangeville.

“He is a disgrace to the uniform that he wore,” Cullen said.

Lewis led a duplicitous life as an apparently caring husband and community man while using his position as a police officer to commit his acts, she said. On occasion, he committed his crimes in a police cruiser, in uniform.

Defence lawyer Leo Kinahan argued for a term of five to seven years, saying penetration did not occur.

“Sometimes I dream about getting out of the police car and running, wishing he would just shoot me or run over me,” one victim said in an impact statement read in court amid stifled sniffles and the rustle of tissue.

“Probably the issue I have to live with,” another said, “is that if I had come forward and told someone when this was happening, it might have stopped then. . . . Maybe this all could have stopped long ago if I hadn’t feared reprisals because of Mr. Lewis’s job as a policeman.”

Cullen said the victims have nothing to apologize for.

Lewis, 63, a towering figure standing 6-foot-6, entered the courthouse looking puffy and disheveled in a rumpled black suit, accompanied by his wife, Carol.

One feature of the case was that Lewis typically abused boys of close family friends. During one incident at a friend’s home, the boy’s father was upstairs, Cullen said. In another case, the boy’s parents were in the next room.

During proceedings, Lewis sat impassively as victims standing to the side and slightly behind him told how his abuse destroyed their self-esteem, leading to troubles in marriage, other close relationships and sometimes with addiction.

Asked by the judge if he wished to speak, Lewis said he stands by his not-guilty plea but accepts the decision of the court.

In June, Lewis was found guilty of 19 sex-related offences out of 25 originally brought against him by 10 complainants. The acts took place between 1969 and 1994. Lewis was first charged in 2006 and convicted after a 35-day trial that began in May 2009.

The judge reserved his decision on the sentence.

Police free 69 kids forced into prostitution

THE FBI said today 69 children who had been forced into prostitution were freed over the last three days as a result of a coordinated investigation by the FBI along with state and local authorities.

The operation took place in 40 cities across the nation and resulted in the arrest of nearly 885 people, including 99 pimps.

“Child prostitution continues to be a significant problem in our country, as evidenced by the number of children rescued through the continued efforts of our crimes against children task forces,” said Shawn Henry, executive assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch.

Indictments were unsealed in several US Districts today, charging individuals with a variety of crimes ranging from kidnapping, distribution of child pornography and the transportation of minors to engage in prostitution as well as narcotics and firearms offences.

Mom’s video shakes insanity plea

She held her daughter’s head under water for at least two minutes, until the little girl’s heart stopped beating.

Then she did it again.

Of this there is no doubt, no denial.

Probably, it was 19-month-old Sophia who was drowned first. During a police interrogation, her mother describes vaguely how the toddler had been scooped from the tub strangely still and then having to chase down Sophia’s sister, 3-year-old Serena, who didn’t want to take her evening bath.

Picture that, for a moment, a child who may have realized that her own mom was intent on killing her, with nowhere to run.

It’s impossible to determine when Elaine Campione was telling the truth and when, or if, she was lying in all the interviews conducted later by police and psychiatrists.

In one conversation, Campione told a doctor about having flashbacks or maybe it was a movie her confused brain was recalling, she wasn’t sure. But there was an image that had come to her, of Serena pressing Sophia’s head into the bath water.

The 35-year-old accused has never tried to point the finger of homicidal blame at anybody else, her lawyer claimed here this week; quietly admitted the dead girls were lying in her bed — go look — when cops came pounding on her door early on the morning of Oct. 4, 2006.

“She did. She did try to blame someone else,’’ Crown Attorney Enno Meijers countered on Friday, in his closing address to the jury. “She tried to blame Serena for Sophia’s death.’’

Campione, who never once raised her head in the witness box during Meijers’ three-hour summation of a case that will go to the jury next week, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the drowning deaths of her daughters. The defence has acknowledged that Campione “caused the girls to drown’’ but argues she should be found not criminally responsible due to severe mental illness — that the doting mom, her mental equilibrium tragically askew, was unable to grasp the legal or moral wrongness of her actions.

The prosecution, while conceding Campione was emotionally distraught and indeed mentally sick, says she nevertheless fully understood what she was doing, planned it, deliberated on it — all requirements that must be met for a first-degree murder conviction — and vengefully committed the crimes to spite her estranged husband, choosing to kill the girls rather than lose them in a looming custody battle.

“She would rather kill the girls than let him have them. She said as much before she killed them and she said as much after she killed them.’’

There is, most damaging, the videotape that Campione herself shot between Oct. 2 and Oct. 4, by any definition a confessional: Footage of the girls on the last evening of their lives, Sophia splashing in the tub and Serena colouring, then 47 minutes when the camera is shut off, and then Campione reappearing on the screen, sitting on a sofa, unleashing a toxic diatribe against her husband, Leo, forever wounding words of venom and scorn, of sending the girls and herself (she had taken a drug overdose, allegedly intending suicide) to Heaven.

At some point, she made herself a cup of tea.

Not until some 36 hours later — after grooming the corpses, laying them out on her bed, setting out their burial clothes, writing funeral instructions — did she call police to her Barrie apartment, passively informing them her daughters were dead.

Killing her daughters was not a spontaneous decision, made during an episode of sudden and exculpative psychosis, Meijers argued. Campione had already told her sister, in a phone call, that if she couldn’t have the girls “nobody would.’’ She’d given away an expensive coat the maternal grandparents had bought as a gift for Serena, telling a neighbour: “They will never grow into a Size 6.’’ Gave away Dora the Explorer bed linen because “they’ll never sleep in twin beds.’’

And, an entire year earlier, when leaving her husband and moving temporarily into a women’s shelter — where she looked down her nose at others in the same predicament, women fleeing abusive partners, children in tow — Campione had confided to another resident: “One day, I’d like to do a grand gesture. Leo will come home and find me and the kids dead in the house.’’

The horrific scene police discovered that morning four years ago was exactly the tableau Campione had envisioned, Meijers told court. “What these officers walked into was a set, a perfectly prepared stage.’’

On the tape she’d conveniently rewound to an appropriate starting point and left on a table — the screed that was cued to resound after her death — a clear-eyed Campione hurls vitriol at her husband:

“There’s no way I could have them with you. You’re a horrific monster!

“You’re constantly lying lying lying lying. Now you deal with this you. You deal with it for the rest of your life.

“I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.’’

Meijers: “Is there any mistaking the tone? Is there any mistaking the purpose of this tape, the pure, vindictive hatred?’’

The prosecution asserts this was a spousal revenge killing, carefully plotted. The defence maintains a floundering and mentally deteriorating Campione, despondent over a custody hearing scheduled for later in the week where her compromising mental health records would be entered to illustrate her unfitness as primary caregiver to the children, snapped under duress, plummeting into a recurrence of psychotic unreality.

Onus is on the defence to prove mental illness so profound that it rendered Campione irrational and not responsible for the criminal act.

Meijers summoned strong arguments to discredit this position, which had been disputed by psychiatrists who testified as duelling expert witnesses.

The prosecutor argued that Campione simultaneously detested her husband and longed for a reconciliation — a hope that waned as Leo appeared to be moving on with his life, sending her papers to sell the matrimonial home, apparently starting a new relationship with another woman, and then playing “hardball’’ in his bid for full custody.

“The children remained the link to him. If she lost the children, the link is gone. As her hope is fading, her anger is resurfacing.’’

But it wasn’t her husband that a furious Campione set her sights on murdering. It was their innocent daughters, so that Leo would spend a lifetime in guilt and grief.

“There is overwhelming evidence that she planned it, she executed that plan, she set the scene for them to found. But then she woke up.’’

At that juncture, after failing to succumb to a drug overdose, Campione was left with a double-murder scenario she couldn’t alter, Meijers continued. She could only feign memory loss of the actual killings and plead insanity, he said.

“She knows the jig is up.’’