Iowa day care cited in 22 complaints since child death

A Donnellson day care implicated in the death of an infant last year has received state citations for 22 more violations, including one this week for improper “safe sleep” practices.

The citations by the Iowa Department of Human Services against Raisin’ Em Up Early day care follow the Dec.11 death of 4-month-old Jack Rowland, who was found unresponsive there on Dec. 3.

The baby died in a hospital after he was removed from life support. An autopsy determined he had suffered a brain injury caused by oxygen deprivation.

Laura McDowell, 30, the site supervisor and lead teacher at the day care, was charged in August with a felony count of child endangerment causing the baby’s death. McDowell had placed him on the floor “in a prone position on his stomach for an extended period of time without appropriate supervision and attentiveness,” prosecutors alleged in court documents.

At the time, McDowell was watching five other children who were under the age of 2, court documents show. State child care rules allow a caretaker to supervise no more than four children of that age.

Because investigations continue, the Iowa Department of Human Services has not made public its reports on the death. But the department launched a license revocation process in response to the other violations it has found since the December incident.

DHS — citing text messages obtained by the Division of Criminal Investigation — concluded that “the center displayed active efforts to deceive child care licensing.” In a March 2 text, for example, a staffer told a colleague that the center would be “screwed” if an inspector came because not enough workers were on hand to meet DHS’ adult-to-children ratios.

Raisin’ Em Up Early day care in Donnellson was caring for 4-month-old Jack Rowland when he became unresponsive Dec. 11, 2018 and later died. The center is now the subject of a criminal investigation and has since been cited by Iowa DHS for serious child care violations. (Photo: Lee County Assessor)

Other infractions include a staff member falling asleep while supervising children; kids left unsupervised on a bus and children inadvertently given multiple doses of medications.

Owner Sarah Tweedy agreed to close the center on April 17, giving parents two weeks to find new child care, but she changed her mind a week later and is fighting the license revocation. The day care continues to operate as Tweedy appeals the revocation.

In the latest report released this week, DHS said an inspector observed an infant on Sept. 24 in a highchair “in a deep slumber,” which is a violation of recommended practices that children be placed on their backs for sleep. The child was uninjured, records show.

Laura McDowell, the site supervisor and lead teacher of the Raisin’ Em Up Early day care in Donnellson was charged with child endangerment causing death, a felony. (Photo: Lee County Sheriff)

Tweedy this week said she believes DHS has unfairly targeted her business. State inspectors in recent months have been visiting the center at least once a week while issuing the nearly two dozen citations, which Tweedy has described as inaccurate or exaggerated.

“To me, every single move that is made is being analyzed,” Tweedy said this week. “We’re fighting a losing battle that we’ll continue to fight until our status changes.”

Jack Rowland’s family have previously provided pictures of the infant to the Register, but declined to be interviewed, saying they didn’t want to risk jeopardizing the investigation.

Their son was one of at least seven children who have died in Iowa day cares since January 2018. At least four of the day cares involved were previously warned they were operating over capacity or at unsafe staff ratio levels, a Des Moines Register investigation published in July showed.

At least two other child-care providers face ongoing charges related to the deaths, including unregulated in-home day care providers Trina Mazza of Johnston and Jennifer Brungardt of Ankeny.

Tweedy has operated the day care in Donnellson, a town of less than 1,000 in far southeast Iowa, for almost 20 years. During two unannounced visits in 2017, DHS found the day care was out of compliance with the requirement of one staffer for every four infants

Jason Clayworth is an investigative reporter at the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-699-7058 or