FISHERS, Ind. - Several families are speaking out in support of a Fishers couple, criminally charged following the June 20 death of a toddler at a home day care.
The Hamilton County prosecutor's office charged Saundra Wahl and Daniel Wahl -- who operate Home Away from Home day care -- with involuntary manslaughter, Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney reported.
"I do not believe they should be charged criminally,” said Julie Ragsdale, a mother whose 3-year-old daughter still attends the day care. “This was a horrible accident that has touched all of our lives."
"It’s extremely unjust," said Sarah Ewing, whose 11-month-old son still attends Home Away from Home. "It was an accident, and it could have happened on my time with my son. It was extremely tragic, but it was not intentional."
Anthony DiRienzo, 20 months, was found wedged between the wall and the vertical bar of a swinging metal baby gate, according to court documents.
The child was trapped at his neck, and he was unresponsive when emergency personnel arrived at the Hawkstone Drive home, according to the probable cause filed in September.
Although the coroner's office ruled the death accidental, prosecutors believe the Wahls provided reckless supervision as a child care provider.
The latch on the baby gate was broken, and the Wahls were aware that the latch was broken and tried to mitigate the risk by placing a rocking chair and swing against the gate, Detective David Finn of the Fishers Police Department said in the affidavit.
"The rocking chair was marred by the motion of the gate against it, which demonstrates the substantial period of time that the chair was used in this manner," read the document. "Daniel and Saundra were aware that children -- and, in particular, A.D. -- were capable of pushing through the gate."
Parents of children who attend Home Away from Home who spoke with RTV6 denied there was anything wrong with the gate.
"I do not believe the gate was broken," Ragsdale said. "Danny and Sandy have maintained that from day one."
"From my understanding and from I’ve seen, the gate was not broken," Ewing said.
Police said to compound the risk, the latch-end of the gate could not be seen from the kitchen area, which meant that the required supervision could only be provided by an adult in the toddler-and-infant room.
Saundra Wahl told police she left the toddler-and-infant room for approximately three to five minutes to feed a girl in a highchair in the kitchen, according to the probable cause.
"Saundra stated that once in the room, she looked over and saw the victim face down, wedged at the neck, between the baby gate and the wall," read the probable cause. "Saundra advised that there was another child of similar age also on the wrong side of the gate."
Ewing and Ragsdale said they have never seen any red flags at the day care and continue to send their children there despite the DiRienzo’s death and the Wahls’ arrest.
“(Sandy’s) had my son since six weeks of age, and as any parent, it's really important your child has a strong attachment with whoever his caregiver is,” said Ewing. “My son loves her."
“Everybody is grieving, but this is wrong,” said Ragsdale regarding the criminal charges. “If people want to lay blame, it should be done in a civil suit. Not criminally."
The families also take issue with Fishers Police arresting the Wahls during day care hours, with children present at the home.
"It was a very difficult thing to witness and I feel it was unnecessarily handled when they could have taken care of it off hours when the children were not present," Ewing said. "I was very angry. I don’t think they had our children’s best interest in mind and that’s why the law is there, to protect our children."
“It was extremely traumatic,” said Ragsdale, who has requested an internal investigation of Fishers Police. “We want answers about why they chose to do it at that time, on that day and emotionally scar us forever.”
"Fishers has concluded that the events leading up to the arrest of the Wahls was lawful and consistent with Fishers policies," said Sgt. Tom Weger, spokesman with Fishers police. "Fishers will not further comment on Hamilton County’s ongoing criminal prosecution."
The Wahls trial is scheduled for February, and they’re facing up to three years in prison if convicted.
For some parents, that could mean finding another day care.
"I chose them for a reason, and that choice is being taken away from me,” Ragsdale said. "I am angry about that."
The Hamilton County Prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the families’ concerns.
The Wahls are expected in court on the involuntary manslaughter charges on Jan. 30.
The family of Anthony DiRienzo declined to comment for this story. They are raising money for a playground in the little boy’s memory.
The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration Bureau of Child Care visited the home June 24 and cited the day care for lack of supervision the day the child died.
FSSA inspectors also found Home Away From Home was not meeting proper child-to-staff ratio requirements, and the state issued a probationary license on July 1.
Inspectors returned July 16 and found the same violations, including two infants in "pack and plays behind a closed door."
"They were not meeting the supervision requirement of leaving the doors open," read the FSSA document. "On this day there were four children under 16 months of age and one over 24 months inside with Mrs. Wahl while the other seven children were outside with Mr. Wahl. This would have required two staff inside the home with the five children."
FSSA is taking action to revoke the license for Home Away from Home day care.
The Wahls are appealing the license revocation and are allowed to keep the facility open during the appeal process, according to FSSA spokeswoman Marni Lemons.
In their appeal, the Wahls said the day care is their livelihood and addressed the infants found behind a closed door.
"Since the accident we have been very careful to keep only the correct ratio of children to adults," read the appeal. "It is also not our policy to keep any doors closed that would obstruct our view of the children."
The Wahls said they have never been cited for closed doors in the past 10 years.
"In order to keep any child from being able to close this door in the future, we have purchased and installed a door stop and a gate for this opening to assure that I cannot happen again," read the appeal. "As part of our regular care we do not have a ratio that is against State requirements. There are however, two to three minute intervals during transition times when ratios may be lopsided.”
Lemons pointed out the Wahls agreed to and signed two plans of correction on both June 24 and July 16.
"The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) is the licensing authority for child care in the state of Indiana and, therefore, was involved in this matter only to the extent of inspecting the child care home, placing it on probation on June 24, 2013, due to observed lack of supervision and exceeding the child-to-staff ratio expressed in state regulation at the time of the June 20th incident," Lemons said in an email to RTV6. "FSSA subsequently took action to revoke the child care home's license on July 24, 2013, only after making a return inspection visit on July 16th and finding that lack of supervision issues still existed:
- Two infants were sleeping in pack-and-plays, unsupervised, behind a closed door
Child-to-staff ratio continued to violate state regulations:
- As a mixed-age home, they were allowed no more than 3 children under the age of 16 months – yet they had four.”
Lemons pointed out that the actions of FSSA are completely separate from the actions taken by law enforcement.
You can check the status of your day care provider's license here -- http://bit.ly/JDcmtM
Home Away from Home, for example, is currently listed as "OPEN- ENFORCEMENT PENDING."