Saturday, March 5, 2011

In Loco Parentis -- the Houston Daycare Fire

On February 24, a kitchen fire destroyed a home day care in Houston, Texas, killing four children and injuring the other three there. All were less than three years old. The day care operator was unharmed, which is not surprising given that surveillance video shows she was shopping at Target when the fire started. She has since fled the country.

The death of a child -- any child -- for any reason is horrific. Incidents involving children are one of the types of traumatic events that automatically trigger the response of a Critical Incident Stress Management team in many fire and police departments simply because the chances are so big that the first responders will be seriously emotionally impacted by them. Children aren't "supposed" to die. That's how we believe the world works, and when they do die it shakes us up.

This event, of course, is made infinitely worse by the fact that it appears to be directly caused by someone's negligence. As much as we believe children don't die, we also believe that everyone protects children. And we certainly believe that people whose job it is to protect children at least try. If the death of a child in a car accident shakes up our worldview, the death of a child due to the gross negligence of a caregiver explodes it.

Or does it? When children are killed by their parents we are horrified, but we are not, at least from a distance, as traumatized. That's because when parents kill their children, most of us analyze the situation and judge that our own children are safe. We know that the same thing won't happen to our family because we know we will not murder our children. It's horrible, but it's easily prevented.

Which brings us around to this particular situation. Those of us with children in day care or school drop our children off each day and leave them with others who act in loco parentis, meaning "in the place of the parents." We give those caregivers the right and the responsibility to behave as parents to our children, and we believe that those caregivers will do at least a rough approximation of what we would do with regards to our kids and their well-being.

Those of us who work in schools or day cares, on the other hand, know that sometimes the expectations of parents can be unreasonable. When something goes wrong and the parents are not present, they are likely to blame us, even if, in reality, they would have done the exact same thing we did. If a child is playing in their back yard and falls and breaks their arm, the parents feel bad but recognize it as an accident. If it happens on the playground at school, they are much more likely to blame the school staff. That's because we confuse acting in loco parentis with preventing all harm to children. The former is the law. The latter is impossible.

But in this case, it wasn't impossible. Could this fire have started had the day care provider been with the children? Quite possibly. Fires happen. It could have happened in a child's home, too. Could one or more of the children have been injured or killed in such a situation? Also possible. Kids are hurt in fires under the best of circumstances. Despite our best efforts, children die.

But this wasn't the day care provider's best efforts. We will never know if that fire would have started had she been doing her job, or whether the kids would have survived it if it did. She didn't try. When we drop our kids off at day care, we do so with the belief that the person acting in loco parentis is a responsible person. We wouldn't leave them if we didn't believe that. I can only imagine the horror of finding out this way that you were wrong.


Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle