‘Understaffed, under-trained, under-enforcing’: Experts say infant’s death at Bear day care was ‘entirely preventable’

The death of an infant at a five-star child care center in the Bear-area should have never happened, according to experts in child care development.

“It is entirely preventable.”

Preventable, experts said, had the Little People Child Development Center in Bear been adequately staffed, with policies that were enforced.

Patty Dailey-Lewis, executive director of the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children, said 4-month-old Isabella Talton would still be alive today had the foundation’s primary principle been followed.

Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children

“There should never be a one-on-one uninterruptible, unobservable interaction between an adult and a child, period,” said Dailey-Lewis.

The push for that principle came after it was discovered pedophile pediatrician Earl Bradley in Lewes was able to molest hundreds of children in Delaware. He was convicted of these crimes.

“Make sure that the policy can actually be enforced because if you have five rooms, and you have four employees, guess what? It’s not happening, so they can have it in their policies, but they’re not doing it. I just think checking like that is so important.”

Court records said Isabella was smothered to death by day care worker Dejoynay Ferguson, 19, of Wilmington, because she wouldn’t stop crying. The fatal assault was captured on video, according to Delaware State Police, who noted Ferguson placed her hands over the baby’s mouth and nose for a period of at least three minutes. The video showed the baby kicking at the beginning of the assault, but not moving by its end.

Dejoynay M. Ferguson, 19, of New Castle
Michael A. Austin/Delaware State Police

“I could not believe that somebody could possess that level of cruelty to hold their hand over the nose and mouth of a child–and I know that’s an allegation, and you know that child was kicking because that’s what babies do–until that child wasn’t alive. I was brokenhearted that this happened; brokenhearted for the family–I know as a mother what my reaction would be; brokenhearted for co-workers, who probably work so hard to take good care of kids; and just brokenhearted for all of us who now have to think about how to prevent this,” said Dailey-Lewis.

The Office of Child Care Licensing has suspended Little People Child Development Center’s license in the wake of the baby’s death, but other affiliated centers remain operational. Spokesman Joseph Smack said the five-star center was previously inspected on May 17, 2019, with no major issues.

“No non-compliance was cited at the visit, but while processing the license, the licensing supervisor discovered that the administrator or curriculum coordinator needed 15 clock hours of specialized school-age training, so a provisional license was issued to allow time for this training to be completed. Verification of this training was received and an annual license issued on 07-19-19, to expire on 06-30-2020,” he noted.

Little People Child Development Center in Bear

The day care’s owner, Janice Palmer, didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story via email and a telephone message left at the center’s New Castle facility. It’s unclear whether Ferguson has an attorney.

“This woman’s 19 years old, she’s incredibly young…to have had that kind of responsibility for that many infants,” said Dailey-Lewis.

Smack begged to differ.

“To say that a 19-year-old is not capable of caring for an infant–”

WDEL interrupted: “For four infants.”

“For four infants, I would disagree with that, primarily because 19 year olds are adults, they can register to vote, they can join the military, they can buy property, get married without consent, have children of their own, and in the case of Little People, there were actually three infants at that time in care, so it would not have prevented, even if we had a one-to-three ratio, it would not have prevented that ratio,” said Smack.

Delaware law calls for a child care ratio of four-infants-to-one-adult, while national best practices, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, call for a ratio of three-to-one.

“I don’t feel that [the law] is negligent, but again, we are not being clear enough–I’ve said to somebody, ‘I don’t get why you’re not getting what I’m saying. I don’t understand how you don’t understand: there should not be a situation where an adult is left in an unobservable, uninterruptible situation with a child, period, the end.'”

Smack pointed out the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which called for a ratio of four infants to one adult.

“Delaware is in line with many other states, actually, the majority of other states in a one-to-four ratio, many states actually have a greater ratio than we do. Delaware is very progressive, we have a very robust set of Delacare regulations for child care facilities and child care homes.”

But children who can’t yet talk are among the most vulnerable.

“I, as a mother, and as a person who’s been educated in providing care to children, I cannot imagine why I would leave a 19-year-old with four children,” said Dailey-Lewis.

The center’s website promises their staff is “highly-trained” with those working in the infant room possessing no less than three years’ experience caring for infants.

Little People Child Development Center/Screenshot

The Office of Child Care Licensing told WDEL Ferguson was cleared to provide care as an early childhood assistant teacher on January 16, 2019. Dailey-Lewis said the likelihood of Ferguson having the level of experience promised is close to impossible.

“Unless you’re counting when somebody was a babysitter, I don’t see how it’s possible…she certainly does not possess a child care degree–an associate’s or a bachelor’s…unless she went at 16 and got an associate’s.”

She said Ferguson’s level of training and behavioral background are pivotal unknowns in this scenario.

“If this woman was so stressed out by an infant’s crying, she didn’t belong working in an infant room, but she should’ve gone to get help, and sadly, help should have been right there,” said Dailey-Lewis.

She served as an early childhood assistant teacher and was qualified to do so, under state law, Smack said.

“There’s no doubt about that, she had the experience, the age, and the training.” he said.

Ferguson was hired in January of 2019 and under supervision until May of 2019, when she became an early childhood assistant teacher.

Here are the requirements for an Early Childhood Assistant Teacher, according to the Office of Child Care Licensing.

Early Childhood Assistant Teacher

A licensee shall ensure that an early childhood assistant teacher is at least 18 years of age and meets the following education and experience qualifications:


Area of Study/Major

Regionally Accredited College or University Credits

Experience 1

High school diploma or equivalent recognized by Delaware Department of Education

All areas of study

Successful completion of at least three credits in early childhood education and three credits in child development
– or –
Successful completion of Training for Early Care and Education 1 or TECE 1
– or –
Successful completion of a traditional high school’s career pathway program in early childhood education approved by Delaware’s Department of Education

Six months of experience working with children birth through second grade in a group setting

1 Supervised experience may be substituted for the required experience and will reduce it by half.

That training includes orientation, including “positive behavior management of children, safe sleep procedures, shaken baby syndrome procedures, routine and emergency health care, prevention and response to emergencies, child accident injury procedures, and the big one of course is the recognition of the symptoms of child abuse and neglect, child abuse neglect law and reporting requirements, and also familiarizing themselves with their center’s procedures for reporting abuse and neglect,” according to Smack.

The Office of Child Care Licensing has 16 child license specialists, 10 of which are in New Castle County. Smack said the office prides itself on its 100 percent annual inspection rate since 2002.

“Any complaints that are received, we do an unannounced inspection in a timely manner that’s generally within a day or two,” said Smack. “While we seemingly do not have enough staff, we do a good job on inspections and following up on complaint investigations.”

Video is not mandated in child care centers under Delaware law, but Dailey-Lewis said it should be.

“It’s all fine and good to have cameras, but if no one’s watching them then it doesn’t protect your children…I will find it very hard to believe that this was a dedicated child care worker who just suffocated a baby one day at 10:30 in the morning. It doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Why have the video unless you’re looking at it?”

While Delaware law does call for criminal background checks for anyone working with children–a law change Dailey-Lewis fought fervently for at the Delaware Department of Justice–she admitted:

“Earl Bradley came to Delaware with a clean background, so that only takes into account criminal behavior that has been adjudicated. It does not take into account things that you might not see on a criminal background check. It also doesn’t take into account tendencies of someone this young…criminal background checks are just the first step to weed out the obvious.”

Dailey-Lewis called for additional training for all early childhood education workers. The same level of child abuse prevention training that’s required for teachers under state law following the Bradley case isn’t required of all early childhood workers, but Dailey-Lewis would like to see it mandated.

“This proves [that]…Look, the Office of Child Care Licensing does a good job, but look at the number of employees they have compared to the number of day cares, I mean we’re talking the amount of day care centers, big ones, we’re talking about the smaller day care centers, we’re talking about in-home day cares, and we haven’t even scratched the surface on the illegal in-home day cares, where people are not registered and doing nothing to comply with the law.”

Smack said orientation does include child abuse and neglect training.

“Any staff member who works more than 25 hours per week is required to do 18 hours, annually, of health and safety refresher training,” said Smack. “This would include child abuse awareness and training.”

Those working less hours, including interns and part-time workers, have lesser hour requirements.

Recently, Dailey-Lewis said the foundation’s Stewards of Children training was brought to a Head Start child care facility. The training costs $10 per person, but financial support is available, upon request and proof of need. Free training is also provided in April during Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“We have been at several [day cares], we’d love to be at more. We have not focused, as much, on younger children as we have on school-aged children,” she said. “I think parents need to be better educated from the time a child is born; they need to be trained about leaving their children where they leave their children and who they leave their children with,” she explained.

She’s also in talks to bring the training to the Delaware Department of Corrections facilities.

“First to the women’s prison, because a lot of these women are going to get out and are going to be the primary caretakers of their children, and let’s talk with them about how they can better protect their children, so I think it’s a combination of parents and statutes,” she said.

Dailey-Lewis called it “impossible” to ensure no child ever dies in a day care again, but she said the tragedy highlights Delaware’s need for improvement.

“After the Bradley case, we got a lot of statutes changed, and we got a lot of push-back from people: ‘too expensive, too much time.’ But you know what? We saw holes in the system…I just can’t conceive of a 19-year-old that should be in that situation. Again, she could be Doogie Howser and have gone through high school and college, and I know that the system can’t afford a bunch of college-educated people…working at a day care or child care center should never be a person’s last-ditch option for getting a job…there’s a lot of pressure in that job.”

She looks forward to seeing the Child Protection Accountability Commission and the Child Death, Near-Death, and Stillbirth Commission’s report and recommendations in the wake of Talton’s death, but in addition to improved statutes and regulations, Dailey-Lewis re-stressed the need for increased oversight and better training for parents.

But her bottom line was, if there were two people in that room, Isabella would be alive today.

“Or if there was a person who made sure that every two minutes [they checked], Isabella would be alive. I just don’t know how something like this could happen in a daycare, unless it was understaffed, under-trained, under-enforcing policies and procedures. It cannot have happened without the negligence adding to the problem of no one-on-one uninterruptible, unobservable [interactions],” said Dailey-Lewis. “I don’t know what you can say to someone who suffered that kind of a loss except the situation should never happen again, and if we had no one-on-one, unobservable, uninterruptible contact…it would not have happened. It would have been a place where a child was safer. And I know people who say, ‘You can’t do it.’ You can do it. It just takes a little more work.”

Thursday on WDEL, we’ll take another look at the issue, including the additional training experts would like to see mandated and strategies to cope with crying.