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Tragedy produces calls for day care fences

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Vermont residents are questioning the state’s child care rules after the tragic drowning of a toddler Feb. 11.

Parker Berry, a 3-year-old from Hyde Park, drowned in Thatcher Brook after wandering from his group at Elephant in the Field, a registered home day care in Waterbury Center.

People from across the state have offered support to the toddler’s grieving family, and some are calling for stricter rules.

In Waterbury, residents grieved along with the family.

A group of Waterbury residents gathered at Rusty Parker Park Sunday evening to mourn the loss to the community. They wrote messages of support on paper hearts for Parker’s family and for the day care, Elephant in the Field.

People who weren’t at the gathering can still drop off messages on paper hearts at Stowe Street Café or Waterbury Pharmacy.

Almost two weeks ago, Linda Phillips-Fordham posted to a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for the toddler’s family with some criticism of the state Department for Children and Families.

“This state has their priorities all screwed up!” she wrote on gofundme.com. “There should have been a fence around the day care. In little Parker’s name, there should be a law that all day cares licensed in this state have to have fencing.”

Other people wrote similar messages.

The agency has been working on outdoor play regulations for registered home day cares since 2012, said Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner of the Department for Children and Families’ child development division.

Current rules require that day care centers protect children from “any and all conditions which threaten a child’s health, safety and well-being.” That includes stoves, pools, poisons, asbestos, wells, vicious animals, lead paint and other hazards.

The updated rule would add a clause on fencing and barriers. It reads: “The outdoor play area shall be fenced or otherwise protected from traffic and other hazards.”

Alternatives to fencing could include natural barriers, such as hedges or clear land boundaries.

Murphy said some home child care providers have large swaths of land with no major hazards. Those providers are concerned about the cost of fencing, and about whether children will have enough space to play outside.

Whatever the rules, the department says little children still need to be supervised by responsible adults.

The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules will consider the new rules next month. The agency hopes the new regulations can be published in April and take effect by September.

“The providers have all seen the regs already,” Murphy said. “It won’t be a surprise.”

She does not expect any major objections to the rules changes, which came about because the department wanted some consistency across the child care system.

Both licensed home care facilities and licensed early childhood development programs already have fencing requirements.

The current rules date from 1996, Murphy said, when home care was more informal than it is now.

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