Toddler's death highlights inconsistencies in Indiana day care laws

Juan Carlos Cardenas drowned at a church day care February 22.

It's a day care divide.

There are two very different sets of rules for providing child care in Indiana. Licensed centers are strictly regulated, but church-run day cares follow few regulations.

There has been a push to change Indiana law, but the push back has prevented any change.

It's a daily ritual for Juan Cardenas - a few quiet moments between father and son.

"Doesn't matter what I'm doing, I always leave time for him," said Cardenas as he pushed a toy truck on top of his son's tombstone.

Juan Carlos was just 22 months old when he drowned.

"For me, I put his body in there, but I know he's with God," explained Cardenas.

The child's death on February 22 happened at a day care run by Praise Fellowship Assembly of God Church, where somehow, he walked out of a cafeteria, through at least two unlocked doors, up a flight of steps, and ended up in the church baptismal pool in the sanctuary, which was filled with two feet of water.

Day care workers lost track of him for at least an hour-and-a-half, according to a Department of Child Services report obtained by 13 Investigates. They only searched the building after a speech therapist came to work with the toddler.

"I was so mad," said Cardenas. "(Mad at) the people that were watching my son."

The problem: apparently no one was watching Juan Carlos. Even at some day care centers watching children isn't mandated, 13 Investigates discovered.

"For me, church and day care, I thought it was a good thing. I didn't know the rules," said Cardenas.

There aren't many rules.

In Indiana, only fire and building code standards are required to operate a child care ministry. Since Praise Fellowship is considered a ministry, not a licensed child care center, even the most basic supervision of children - having an adult in the same room with children, or even in ear shot - isn't required under Indiana law.

13 Investigates asked state officials if supervision at day care should be expected.

"You assume that that is the minimum standard of care you're going to receive," said Melanie Brizzi, director of the state's Bureau of Child Care.

But at ministries?

"It's not required," she said.

Unlike licensed day care centers, which have to follow hundreds of rules, day cares with a religious affiliation are essentially unregulated.

The difference was lost on Juan, who thought any day care - and especially a church - would follow strict guidelines.

"I think it's part of my responsibility not to look for that information, but I thought he was going to be safe in there. I thought they were going to follow the same rules of any other day care," he said.

An effort to change the law 

Legislators have been trying to change the current law for years.

"It's absolutely unacceptable that we live in a state where the lack of regulation allows that sort of thing to happen," said State Senator Beverly Gard (R-Greenfield).

She tried unsuccessfully to change the law after a 2008 incident when a television fell, crushing and seriously injuring a three-year-old girl at a Greensburg day care ministry.

"It was so watered down and so nothing that it wasn't worth dealing with," said State Rep. Vanessa Summers (D-Indianapolis) of legislation she proposed in 2010. She decided to drop it,  citing outside pressures from one of the strongest lobbying groups in Indiana.

Both lawmakers, along with several others, including child advocates, cite Eric Miller and his conservative Christian lobby group Advance America as the reason all day care ministry-related legislation has failed.

Blocking change

"Sir, there have been several proposed laws and you've stood up against them," Eyewitness News reporter Jeremy Brilliant said to Miller after approaching him outside his downtown Indianapolis office.

"This is improper for you to try to stop somebody on the street," Miller responded.

13 Investigates tried to arrange a sit down interview with Miller, but he didn't responded to multiple requests, so we caught up with him.

This is an excerpt from the conversation:

MILLER: We support continued freedom for churches and their ministries.

BRILLIANT: I'm not talking about freedom, I'm talking about minimum regulation. Right now, in the State of Indiana, supervision is not required at a day care ministry. Don't you think that's a problem?

MILLER: If you start requiring guidelines for church child care ministries, you'll require the same thing for Sunday school, vacation Bible schools and we believe that's inappropriate.

BRILLIANT: So even basic, minimum regulation you think is unnecessary?

MILLER: We have basic, minimum regulation, Jeremy.

BRILLIANT: I'm talking about supervision.

MILLER: You don't know what you're talking about.

"I cannot tell you what's in the mind of those that feel that Eric Miller is right," said Rep. Summers.

Asked if Miller and his lobby group are so strong they've prevented any legislation from moving forward, she said, "Yes sir, it has. Yes sir, it has."

Separating church from state is the reason often given to try to keep government out of any kind of religious child care. But the two are already closely connected and it has to do with funding. After checking state records, 13 Investigates discovered over the past five years, more than $100 million in federal aid has been given to Indiana ministries just to pay for child care.

Leading by example

"Sometimes regulations are awkward. Sometimes we get it wrong and we have to change them and we should do that. But just simply not having them is ludicrous," said Pastor Michael Bowling of Englewood Christian Church on the east side of Indianapolis.

Bowling's church runs Daystar Child Care, a ministry, which voluntarily follows nearly all of the rules of a licensed center, which Bowling says is the way it should be.

"Pass some basic legislation that protect children. And if it's too much, we can change that," he said.

But asked about leaving the situation as it currently is, Bowling said, "Not an option. Not an option."

It's impossible to know if added regulations would have prevented the death of Juan Carlos Cardenas. But his father argues something needs to be done.

"My life is never going to be the same," he said, his voice cracking and eyes welling up with tears. "I don't think it's fair. It's fair for me and I don't think it's fair for all the parents out there. It's going to happen again if they don't follow the same rules."