Daycare investigation goes forward; no substantiive safety issues found in past state inspections

The Highland Park daycare facility- where an employee has been charged in the death of an infant this September –  has no record of serious problems as reported by the New Jersey Department of Human Services.

Above and Beyond Child Care Center burst into the news spotlight a little more than a week ago when the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office announced that it had filed charges against one of the center’s workers in conjunction with the death. That worker, Tanya Choy, 36, of Martinsville, has been charged with child endangerment in the Sept. 10 incident.

Above and Beyond provides day care for children from 6 weeks old through preschool age from 7 a.m.-6 p.m. weekdays, year-round, in space at Highland Park Conservative Temple – Congregation Anshe Emeth. The state consistently has renewed the license for the center since it opened in 2010.

A review of state inspection records turned up only minor violations of state regulations. Inspectors on Nov. 20, 2013, noted that that center needed to replace stained ceiling tiles in two separate rooms. A year earlier, on Sept. 5, 2012, inspectors found children, duly supervised, in a room that had not been approved for daycare use.

The inspection report included this annotation: “There were a total of nine children ages 2½ occupying the second floor, six in room one with two staff, and three in Room 2 with one staff. These areas were unapproved space.”

Other matters reported on the Sept. 5, 2012, visit included the need for second-floor diaper-changing area no more than 15 feet from a sink, some required carpet cleaning, and the need for a diagram showing evacuation routes and room identification.

There also was a matter detailed in a re-inspection in November that year, when the inspector recommended that the center either remove locks from classrooms on the second floor, or provide a clear key policy that details how and when the doors would be left unlocked.

According to a statement from the prosecutor’s office, police were dispatched to the Above and Beyond at 2:19 p.m. Sept. 10, and arrived to find the unnamed infant “in distress.” James O’Neill, spokesman for the Prosecutor’s Office, declined to elaborate.

Above and Beyond is administered by the temple. Rabbi Eliot Malomet, the spiritual leader of the temple, described the child’s death as “terribly tragic” and confessed himself “dumbfounded” and “astounded” by the charges.

“We have a terribly tragic situation here which is beyond description for this family and by extension for anyone who has ever gone through the loss of a child,” he said Thursday afternoon. “Despite the charges that have been against this individual, the system works on the presumption of innocence.”

New Jersey requires daycare centers to have one staff member in the room for every four children younger than 18 months old. A Jan. 12, 2012, state inspection report revealed that during naptime that particular day, there was one staff member supervising 11 children in that age range, but noted that the problem had been resolved by the next month.

It was not clear how many staff were present in the room while the incident unfolded on Sept. 10. The initial statement by the prosecutor’s office did not say, and Rabbi Malomet was unable to answer. He did say that Ms. Choy no longer works at the center.

Police took the boy to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, where he was pronounced dead at 2:45 p.m. An autopsy by the Medical Examiner’s Office was unable to determine the cause of the infant’s death.

In cases where autopsies cannot establish a cause of an infant’s death, such fatalities medically are classified as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, even though that description was never used by the prosecutor’s report.

“It’s what’s called a rule-out diagnosis,” said Dr. Barbara Ostfeld of the SIDS Center of New Jersey, who was commenting about SIDS deaths in general. “It has the perception of a death without a cause.”

SIDS is the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States. In 2010, the most recent year for which data have been finalized, SIDS affected about one baby in every 2000 births; in New Jersey in 2010, it affected one baby in every 2800 live births.

Prevailing theory in pediatric medicine is that infants are at a higher risk of SIDS if they have an abnormality in the arcuate nucleus, a portion of the brain stem. The abnormality is undetectable in life, and shows up only in autopsies more intensive than standard medical autopsies.

There is one very simple thing parents and caretakers can do to prevent SIDS deaths: “Placing the babies on their backs is very important,” said Dr. Ostfeld.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office provided no details of what happened that day in September. Rabbi Malomet also could provide no details of the incident.

No date has been set for the arraignment of Ms. Choy, who lives in Martinsville and could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Matthew Teeter of Roberts & Teeter Attorneys at Law LLC in Somerset, called for the public to respect both his client and the family of the deceased baby at a difficult time for all concerned.

“It’s my wish that the community let the judicial process play itself out,” he said.

Anyone with information on the case can contact Mr. Teeter at (732) 325-0814, and police detective Donald Newton of the Highland Park Police Department at (732) 572-3800, ext. 4222.

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