From: Betty Wade Coyle []
Sent: Monday, August 31, 2009 5:53 PM
Subject: Op Ed

The following Op Ed was published in Sunday's Virginian Pilot
When trust, justice fail our children
IMAGINE THE HORROR of leaving your smiling 9-month old daughter at the lovely home of her trusted child care provider only to be called hours later to find your baby dead. This is the nightmare that Trish and Nick Weiss experienced shortly after Trish returned to work as a school teacher in the fall of 2005.

   For parents who have to work, trusting their baby with a caretaker is one of the hardest things they have to do.

   You can leave the child with a friend or relative, check references, talk to parents who have used the provider, and you can even use the cumbersome process that the commonwealth of Virginia provides, for a fee, to do social services and criminal background checks on prospective caretakers. You can even make surprise visits while the child is in care. But none of these strategies is an ironclad protection from abuse or neglect.

   Trish and Nick Weiss are loving and caring parents. When they left their daughters in the care of Ann Marie Cardinal, they thought they had done their homework. Cardinal had been referred to the Weisses by a coworker; they had checked her references, interviewed the provider and seen the framed “license” hanging on her wall.

   Cardinal lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood of Virginia Beach, and she greeted the Weisses with a big smile as they dropped off their children each morning. In the afternoon, the children were returned seemingly well-kept.

   Had they known that Virginia has a little-publicized and seldom-used system for parents to check Virginia’s social service and criminal records, they might have asked Cardinal’s permission (which is required for these checks) to be allowed to view her records.

   Had they known to ask, they would have learned that Cardinal had both

   a social services and criminal record resulting from incidents that occurred in relation to a child care service she ran in a former home just a few miles from the daycare in which the Weisses’ 9-month-old daughter, Hannah, died. In fact, the court that heard the previous abuse case was so appalled by the way Cardinal had treated the children in her care that a protective order was issued that forbade her from caring for children again.

   But taking care of children can be a lucrative business, and Cardinal continued to do just that. Caring for 20 children at $90 a week each brought in close to $100,000 a year, but she told the court she was not operating a daycare center for the money.

   Fully aware that she was disobeying a court order and breaking the law, Cardinal developed an elaborate rotation scheme that had different cohorts of children being dropped off and picked up at different times. Unsuspecting parents never realized that she was concealing a large number of other children in rooms throughout the house. The license framed and displayed prominently in her home had been forged to appear that she had complied with all of the state requirements for licensure.

   Cardinal carried on this illegal and reckless scheme until the day little Hannah Weiss died under suspicious circumstances while in her care.

   Cardinal was looking after 20 toddlers and infants singlehandedly. There is no conceivable way she could care for and supervise such a large number of children safely. Her home business was a disaster waiting to happen.

   Although Cardinal was caring for 16 more children than the law allowed, the commonwealth prosecuted her only on charges for the 10 days prior to Sept. 14, 2005 — the day Hannah Weiss died.

   Two courts found Cardinal guilty and gave her the maximum sentence allowed — one year for each count.

   Sometimes people we trust fail us. The Virginia Supreme Court, citing a procedural error, sent the case back to Virginia Beach Circuit Court for a resentencing. This month, Judge Thomas Padrick reduced Cardinal’s sentence by nearly half — to the 3½ years already served.

   Parents trust that the child care providers they choose will keep their children safe. The public trusts that the legislature will create laws to protect our children, and that our courts will enforce those laws to their fullest extent. Clearly, on all counts, we trust too much.

   Betty Wade Coyle is executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Hampton Roads, based in Norfolk. E-mail her at ucantbeatkids@ 
Betty Wade Coyle
Executive Director
Prevent Child Abuse Hampton Roads
5215 Colley Avenue
Norfolk, VA 23508