The things that Veronica Walsh told parents about her day care businesses weren't always true. She wasn't licensed to watch other people's children, for instance, even though she claimed to be in her advertisements.
But the thing Walsh didn't tell parents scared them the most: Her husband, whom she sometimes left alone with the children in her care, had a criminal record for child abuse.
Hers is an extreme case, state officials say, but it illustrates the risk when parents choose an unlicensed day care provider to watch after their children.
As Maryland's regulations for licensed day care homes have evolved into some of the most stringent in the country, the number of illegal operations has swollen perhaps into the thousands, according to state officials. Licensed providers say they are being burdened by the bureaucracy more than ever, while the illegal ones -- and the potential risks they pose for parents and children -- are becoming more common and harder to catch.
"The practice is so clandestine it's very difficult to get a finger on how widespread it is," said Elyn Garrett Jones, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources. "But it's a serious problem that parents need to know about."
The state agency began a radio and television campaign this summer to encourage parents to find licensed, registered day care.
A license is no guarantee of a child's safety, they acknowledge. A licensed operator in Queen Anne's County was indicted on charges of manslaughter and reckless endangerment last week after two infants suffocated and died under a quilt in her home.
But unlike illegal day care homes, Maryland's licensed operators subject themselves to fire and safety inspections, medical examinations, periodic training and criminal background checks for every adult in their home. The list of requirements covers everything from water temperature in the sinks to the types of towels in the bathroom.
Hanna Pacholczyk, a 58-year-old Howard County woman who has been licensed for 21 years, said the regulations have become more detailed and complicated. She has to child-proof her kitchen drawers and cabinets, for instance, even though the children in her house never leave the basement.
Her enrollment is the lowest it's been since she moved to Howard County 13 years ago, something she blames on the unlicensed homes that take away business.
Still, she says she's never thought of shirking the regulations.
"If you decide to provide day care, it should be done legally," she said. "Everything is done to protect the children, and it's not that difficult."
Sometimes investigators find illegal day care homes the hard way. A fire in a home in Parkville last summer injured six children being cared for illegally. But in most cases, investigators wait for complaints from the public.
The Child Care Administration, responsible for licensing and monitoring all day care centers in the state, has 100 full-time licensing specialists. Most of their time is spent conducting routine inspections.
Of the 14,500 day care facilities licensed in Maryland, about 12,200 are in-home facilities that must be inspected every two years. The rest are large centers that are inspected once a year. Besides those regular inspections, the administration investigates about 2,500 annual complaints and conducts surprise inspections of facilities with past troubles.
"We owe it to the registered day care providers to be as aggressive as possible to investigate illegal child care," said John Graybill, a retired Baltimore City police officer who serves as the head of enforcement for the state agency.
"But the most we can do is fine them $1,000. And the reality of it is, they're not easy to find."
Walsh's operations were uncovered in the typical way: Acting on a complaint, investigators parked outside her home and watched children go in and out. Then they talked to the parents and pieced together a case.
Walsh, 44, has been fined twice for running and advertising an illegal home day care operation. Records in Baltimore County District Court show she operated two between 1990 and 1995, first in Carney and later in Cockeysville. Her husband, Daniel Walsh, 48, sometimes watched the children alone for short periods, according to the records.
In 1986, four years before Mrs. Walsh is known to have entered the day care business, Mr. Walsh was found guilty of child abuse for performing a sex act on a 3-year-old girl -- a crime that Mrs. Walsh witnessed and reported to police, according to records in Baltimore County Circuit Court. The verdict was stricken and he was given probation before judgment, and ordered to undergo counseling for two years. The couple separated about that time, but resumed their relationship before early 1990, according to the court records.
"When I found out, it was like getting hit by a two-by-four," said a woman whose two children were once in Walsh's care, and who asked not to be identified for fear that Walsh would contact her. "I spent three hours talking with that woman before I put my children there. I used to think I was a pretty good judge of character."
The experience prompted her to quit her job and care for her children herself, she said. "I don't know if having a license is the answer or not, but I wouldn't want any other parent to have to live with the worries that I did," she said.
Walsh advertised her day care operation in local newspapers, including The Sun, and posted hand-made fliers, sometimes listing a fraudulent child care license number. State officials say Walsh didn't hold a license, and if she tried to get one her husband's record would have come to light.
The Walshes are not listed in local telephone directories, and the phone numbers given in court papers have been disconnected. Efforts to locate them for comment were unsuccessful.
Even when they find illegal day care centers, state officials rarely go straight for their biggest weapon: a criminal charge and $1,000 fine. Most cases are resolved with a threatening letter, or within one of the amnesty programs the administration sometimes offers.
If Maryland's regulations are cumbersome for the legal day care providers who comply with them, it's only because the risks associated with unlicensed day care can be so pronounced, officials say.
Common grounds for a revoked license include caring for more children or younger children than allowed and failing to keep immunization or other personal records for each child. According to records filed with the state Office of Administrative Hearings as well as the Howard and Baltimore county District Courts:
Katrina Anderson of Columbia falsified the medical examinations required for her and her son -- tests designed to screen out providers with communicable diseases or substance abuse problems.
Yelinde Tyler of Jessup, whose license was revoked in 1993, left two toddlers alone on her front porch and reportedly let her mother transport children without car seats.
In Randallstown, Carol Tillman was found with 20 children in her care while her license permitted only eight. One parent told investigators in 1996 that he pulled his son out of Tillman's home because her house was so cramped.
All three women were found guilty within the last year in district courts of operating day care illegally from their homes.
The state Department of Human Resources' advertising campaign encourages parents to seek help with finding registered day care. The Child Care Administration has 13 regional offices that can verify licenses and help guide parents to legal operations.
"[The neighbor] who lives down the street might bake cookies and give them hugs and kisses, but she might not know CPR, or realize that latch on her basement door is dangerous," said Jones.
Pub Date: 9/08/98