INDIANAPOLIS - The parents of a 5-month-old boy who died at a home day care say they had no idea the facility was operating illegally and without a license, Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney reported.
Conor Tilson died Jan. 24, 2013 at Stacey Cox home day care at 421 W. Main St. in Carmel. He went down for a nap and never woke up.
"It just felt like my entire world crumpled down and broke," said John Tilson, Conor's father, reliving the moment he found out his son had died. "It's hard. It's still hard."
According to a probable cause affidavit, a contributing factor to the baby's death was "an unsafe sleep environment on broken Pack and Play."
In their first television interview, Conor's parents, Britney Killea and Tilson, expressed sadness and frustration over their son's death and vowed to educate other parents about the state's child care regulation system.
"Do your homework. Check, double check, triple check,” Tilson said. "Wherever your kid is going to go, make sure they're licensed."
Killea said she took Conor to Stacey Cox’s day care because Stacey is her cousin.
"It was family, and I was a little more lenient than I should've been," said Killea. "I should have done more research."
Conor’s parents said they were unaware of Carefinder, the state Family and Social Services Administration website where parents can look up inspection records.
If a provider does not show up on Carefinder, they are most likely unlicensed.
"I had no idea," said Tilson.
In Indiana, a home day care does not have to get a license if they have five or fewer children unrelated to the provider.
Killea said they did not find out Stacey Cox was operating illegally until after their baby's death.
"A million questions are running through your mind, and there's no one to answer them," said Killea. "It's terrifying and heartbreaking."
When a provider operates without a license, they do not have to submit to criminal background checks, training for CPR and safe sleep, as well as drug screens.
Court records said Stacey Cox and her daughter, Kirsten Phillips, who put Conor down for his nap, both tested positive for marijuana.
"It just absolutely infuriated me," said Tilson. "How can you watch kids and go smoke pot? Don't do that if you have other children's lives in your hands."
Cox Shut Down After Baby Death
FSSA said Cox ignored state warnings about having too many kids and not enough workers.
Court records show DCS received a complaint in September 2012 regarding an 8-month-old child with severe bite marks.
"The complaint alleged that the child care workers at the location did not have sufficient training and that there were too many children at the location," read the document.
The Department of Child Services and FSSA responded to the home on Oct. 1, 2012 and found six children sleeping in the basement without adult supervision, court records indicate.
Cox was issued a plan of correction.
FSSA did a follow up visit on Oct. 11, 2012, finding six unrelated children at the day care. On Oct. 24, 2012, Cox was issued a cease-and-desist notice.
FSSA performed a follow-up visit on Oct. 24, 2012 and found Cox in compliance with the law, with only five unrelated children.
Conor Tilson died three months later.
"On January 24, 2013 Cox was operating her home as a daycare and in violation of the cease and desist letter," read the probable cause.
On Feb. 4, 2013, an undercover Carmel police officer posed as a parent looking to enroll her baby at Stacey Cox child care.
"Cox stated that six children were currently enrolled at the location and two openings were available," read court records.
On Feb. 14, 2013, the state filed a motion with the court seeking to shut down Cox’s day care.
In June 2013, the Attorney General’s Office announced an agreement had been reached in which Cox and Phillips agreed to a lifetime ban on providing or operating a child care facility and pay $6,000 to the state in civil penalties.
Wrongful Death Suit
Tilson and Killea filed a wrongful death suit against Stacey Cox’s operators (Cox, Phillips and James Duncan), as well as FSSA.
"Part of me just wants someone to say, 'Yeah, I did it. It’s my fault,'" said Killea.
The parents said the state should have filed a court order to shut down the facility before Conor Tilson’s death.
"I feel like the state should have done more, and if they had done more, maybe my son would still be alive," Tilson said. "They should be held liable. They should be accountable for their actions."
Attorney General Greg Zoeller released a statement in response to the wrongful death suit.
"The facts involving the death of a child in the criminal charges against Stacey Cox are truly heartbreaking, and the judgment of the court reflects justice under Indiana law," read the statement. "The civil lawsuit where the plaintiffs seek monetary damages poses a different legal question of whether the State should bear liability over a day care facility that is unlicensed. As the lawyer for state government, my office has an obligation to defend the State and ultimately defend the taxpayers and their financial responsibility for the actions of the individual criminal defendants. My oath requires that I defend the State to the best of my skill and ability."
Indiana has many different types of child care providers including licensed centers, licensed homes, registered ministries and unlicensed providers.
Caring for six or more unrelated children requires a license in Indiana.
The Call 6 Investigators obtained a year’s worth of disciplinary actions from FSSA and found 10 cease-and-desist letters to home day cares across the state accused of operating illegally, at some points with up to 26 children.
Records show the authorities responded to Lisa Vaughn’s home day care in Lawrence several times to complaints she's operating illegally.
After a child died of natural causes at her home in May, investigators found nine children inside, records said.
Kenney stopped by her home in January 2014 and asked if she's still operating an unlicensed day care.
"I do have a day care, yes,” Vaughn said from behind a partially open door.
Vaughn would not allow Kenney inside to see how many children were at the day care.
"I'm in the process of getting my license, and I actually have an appointment," said Vaughn.
FSSA spokeswoman Marni Lemons said Vaughn's application was denied and FSSA is seeking an injunction.
Vaughn said she was operating within the law.
"I have five (children)," said Vaughn. "Five unrelated kids."
Vaughn shut the door and did not answer further questions.
Debbie Tuma, of Cicero, received a cease-and-desist letter in November 2013 for operating illegally.
The letter said an FSSA licensing consultant visited the home on Nov. 4, 2013 and found seven unrelated children at the unlicensed day care.
When Kenney visited Tuma's home, she invited her inside.
"I was over by two (children) for two hours, and therefore, I had to let go for a family that I had a year and a half because they were only part time, but I was only over for two hours," said Tuma.
Tuma is still unlicensed, but Kenney counted children, and Tuma appeared to be complying with the law with four unrelated children on site.
Tuma said FSSA had been to her home several times to make sure she’s operating legally.
"I am on their side. One child getting hurt is too many, and losing one is absolutely terrible," said Tuma.
Tuma pointed out that she takes additional steps to keep children safe, such as attending CPR training, even though unlicensed day cares are not required to do so.
FSSA declined to allow Kenney to do a ride along with a child care inspector or to provide someone for an on-camera interview.
Melanie Brizzi, child care administrator at the FSSA Bureau of Child Care, spoke to Kenney by phone and said the agency follows up on all complaints they receive.
"We need to actually observe them breaking the law," said Brizzi. "If that occurs, we issue them a cease-and-desist letter and explain the options to them, including the option of becoming licensed, reducing their number to five or fewer unrelated children, or closing."
If the provider fails to come into compliance, FSSA will then seek an injunction with the Attorney General’s Office. The agency did so with Stacey Cox in 2013.
In November 2012, the Attorney General’s Office obtained an injunction for Stephanie Smith, a home day care operating illegally at 11328 Stoeppelwerth Dr. in Indianapolis.
On Jan. 29, an FSSA spokesperson told Kenney the agency regularly follows up and at last check, Smith appeared to have moved out.
On Feb. 14, Smith, now known as Stephanie Gribble, was arrested on neglect charges after police said four children in her care overdosed on a combination of prescription and over-the-counter medications.
She was operating an unlicensed day care.
"FSSA will be issuing an order to cease and desist from operating a child care illegally at the address where the incident occurred," said Lemons in an email to RTV6.
When an illegal day care is issued a cease-and-desist letter, it is warned the attorney general may seek a civil penalty of $100 a day for each day of operating without a license.
The Attorney General's Office showed that unlicensed day cares have paid $4,750 in civil penalties, data obtained by the Call 6 team indicates.
The state is still attempting to collect $3,300 in civil penalties from Smith.
"We're concerned about people operating illegally," said Brizzi. "It’s our responsibility to uphold the statute. We will continue to follow up to make sure they come into compliance."
Brizzi encouraged anyone with information about an illegal provider, or legal provider, to contact FSSA.
"Anytime someone has a concern about a child care program, we want to know about it," said Brizzi.
Phillips’ trial is scheduled for March 11 on charges of involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide and neglect of a dependent resulting in death.
Stacey Cox was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced in November.
A Hamilton County jury also found Cox guilty of operating a child care home without a license and misdemeanor deception.
She served less than two months in prison and was released Jan. 23. Cox is currently on work release and declined to be interviewed for this story.
As part of her sentence, she can never work in a caring position again and must serve 180 days on probation, a year of work release and perform 30 hours of community service.
"The time she's serving is nothing compared to what she's done," said Killea, referring to Cox’s sentence. "It's completely torn our entire family apart, and it's completely destroyed me as well.”
A Family’s Lesson
Conor Tilson’s parents want other parents to learn from their loss.
"I just don't want it to happen to anyone else," said Killea. "I want to make sure parents are taking precautions to make sure their children are safe, because this could happen to anybody."
Tilson said he can’t help but wonder if things would be different, had he known how to find out if Cox had been licensed.
"Our whole last year wouldn't have been hell," said Tilson.
The couple has a new baby daughter and is working to move forward with their lives.
"I'm happy, because at least I get to see Conor in her," said Tilson. "It's sad because all the pictures I have of him, they just stop. I can't take any other pictures of him. It's just hard.”