House committee hears more emotional testimony on Nathan's Law

Thursday, March 1, 2012 | 6:23 p.m. CST; updated 6:30 p.m. CST, Thursday, March 1, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — The mother of a child who died at the hands of an unlicensed child care provider testified in favor of a bill that would crack down on such providers.

The House Professional Registration and Licensing Committee held a hearing for the bill, which would adopt rules and penalties for unlicensed child care providers.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis County, first called Shelley Blecha to testify in favor of the bill. The bill is named Nathan's Law in memory of Blecha's son, who died in the hands of an unlicensed child care provider.

Nathan Blecha was three months old when he died in the care of an in-home, unlicensed day care provider that the family had used for three-and-a-half years. The day care provider placed him on his stomach in a play pen and some loose bedding became wedged in front of his face resulting in suffocation.

Shelley Blecha cried while telling the committee and audience the story of what happened to her son in 2007.

"There was nothing that could be done," Blecha said. "All they could do was simply ask (the child care provider) to never watch children again. The prosecutor wouldn't do anything because the fine was $200, which I paid more for the ambulance ride for my child than the prosecutor could even get for his life."

Committee members quoted a study by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that reported 54 children died in the hands of child care providers over a 55-month period.

Four components of the legislation would change the current law to:

  • Place restrictions on how many children a provider could care for at a given time. Currently, child care providers are allowed to care for four children in addition to any other children who are related to the provider.
  • Require unlicensed child care providers to inform others that they are unlicensed. The new legislation would count all children under school age as part of the four children, regardless of relation to the provider.
  • Charge providers who broke the law $200 a day for each day they broke the law, up to a maximum of $10,000.
  • Allow the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to shut down any facilities that don't obey the laws.

Schupp says she is pleased with the bill and the support it has garnered thus far. Forty-five legislators co-sponsored the bill.

Last year, the same bill was introduced but was not put before a committee. However, Schupp says that media coverage of the bill has helped it garner support.

"People have heard about it more," Schupp said. "And once people hear about this, they really tend to want to move forward because they know kids' lives are at stake."

None of the representatives spoke against the bill; however, some committee members voiced concerns about the vague language defining who is and is not excluded from the four person limit in the bill. Because the bill would not count children who go to school all day as part of the four child only limit, Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, wanted more clarification on how home-schooled children would fit into child limits outlined.

Kerry Messer, a representative from Missouri Family Network, opposed the first portion of the bill, saying that limits should not be placed on the amount of children a provider can care for at one time.

"When someone who says I will help my neighbor, help my friend from church, help somebody who's asking to be paid for child care services, (but the law) now prohibits them, legally, from being able to bring in their own relatives into their home ... this is a pretty serious thing," Messer said.

Blecha later said that she didn't understand how Messer could debate the child-to-adult ratio in child care.

"I just don't understand his whole hang-up with the number," Blecha said. "You have to have a number if you're going to provide any type of quality care for these children. The statistics will show that children need more than just a bottle crammed in their mouth and their diapers changed. You have to show them love, how are you going to do that if you can watch any amount of children possible?"

The bill still awaits a vote in committee.

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