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Relative calls girl's death on swing 'tragic accident'


The stepfather of a 13-year-old Harford County girl killed when part of a wooden swing set toppled and hit her head at a Bel Air day care center Thursday said yesterday that he bears no animosity toward the day care operator.

"There was no neglect," said Joseph McLaughlin, the stepfather, whose wife, Donna, was too upset to speak with a reporter. "This was just a fluke, a tragic accident."

Teresa Dawn Ackerman of the 600 block of Boxelder Drive in Edgewood was pronounced dead at the scene by Dr. Ganesh Prabhu, deputy medical examiner for Harford County, soon after the 1:45 p.m. accident.

The girl, who was deaf and had Down syndrome, was killed when an unanchored extension to a wooden swing set on which she was climbing toppled and struck the side of her head.

lTC Dr. James Locke of the state medical examiner's office said he examined the girl's body yesterday and determined that no autopsy was necessary. He said the girl died of a head injury and he ruled the death accidental.

Patricia A. Jennings, acting director of the state Child Care Administration, monitors home day care facilities such as the one where the accident occurred. Ms. Jennings said she had not seen anything to suggest the incident was anything but an accident. She said the agency's investigation continued yesterday.

"The provider was in good standing," she said, adding that she was not aware of any past complaint or violations involving the day care provider, Susan Benway of the 2100 block of Geneva Place in Bel Air.

Capt. James Stonesifer of the Harford County Sheriff's Office's Criminal Investigation Division said his office was not looking at the incident in any way other than as an accident.

Yesterday, no one responded to a knock at the door of the day care provider.

It was the third accidental death in a Maryland day care center since 1990, according to state figures.

Mr. McLaughlin said the accident took place while the girl was playing on a swing set she had outgrown at the center. He said the day care operator had bought an extension to the swing set and that the extension was bolted to the structure but not yet anchored.

On Thursday, while Teresa was at a table on a back deck with about five other children, "she snuck down and got on the swing," said Mr. McLaughlin. "Teresa had been told not to swing on it, but she couldn't wait."

An eighth-grader at Southampton Middle School, Teresa was the oldest of the children at the day care facility, Mr. McLaughlin said.

"She was the mother hen and helped Susan with the little ones," he said. "The other children played with her like they would a big teddy bear. They would attack her, jump on her, and she was so good with them."

Mr. McLaughlin said his daughter would have started high school in the fall.

Nancy Catanzaro, an assistant with Community Based Instruction, a program of the special education department of the Harford County Public Schools, worked with Teresa at Southampton this year.

"Teresa was lots of fun," she said. "She loved home economics and art, and worked in the office filing attendance cards for the teachers."

From 1990 through last month, 37 children have died at Maryland day care facilities, 31 of them attributed to sudden infant death syndrome. In three cases, the state medical examiner was unable to determine the cause of death.

Maryland has approximately 12,000 licensed family child care providers and 3,500 foster homes, which are regulated by the state Child Care Administration.

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