Stranger Danger: Restrained at Daycare

Today’s guest author is Danielle Darling.

Danielle has been an elementary school teacher for 20 years. She lives in Ohio with her husband and two sons. She has a passion for teaching and advocating for children. Her advocacy journey began when her oldest was diagnosed with Autism. When he was restrained at his daycare, she knew she wanted to do more to spread awareness on the negative effects and dangers of seclusion & restraint.

Much of what I have learned about autism over the years has been to help my son feel more comfortable and successful in a world that can feel overwhelming to him. I’ve also learned that it’s important to share our story – it’s not always easy for me to put our experiences and feelings into words because writing does not come naturally to me. But a desire to show others the beauty and wonder of life with autism. While I’ve learned to see the beauty, the truth is it can sometimes be messy and ugly.

Last year, my son was hurt by a worker at his daycare. It was traumatizing to our family.

In 2022, My sons were entering 3rd Grade and Kindergarten. We had never sent them to daycare, but their school had a before-care program on the premises. It seemed like a perfect fit for us! And for many months, it was. My oldest is autistic, so we loved that he could socialize with friends in a familiar environment before school. I felt comfortable that his younger brother would be there with him, and even though the program was not staffed by school employees, there were familiar adults nearby if a problem arose. From August through March, things went well. We never heard any negative reports from our kids or the staff. Due to COVID restrictions, we dropped the kids off at the door and were prohibited from entering. Still, when we dropped the boys off in the mornings, the staff member at the door was always kind and never reported any concerns. I noticed that there were different staff members in the winter months. We had a few minor incidents reported to us by our son; nothing was ever reported to us by daycare employees.

In March, I received a call from an employee expressing concern over my son’s behavior that morning. He said that things “became physical,” and I assumed he meant that my son was physically aggressive toward him. I was apologetic and asked what I could do to help. The employee stated that it would help if my son could learn to make friends and listen to the perspective of others. I reminded him that my son is diagnosed with ASD and that the issues of concern were goals included in his IEP. The employee was unsympathetic, cold, and unkind. It was clear that he did not know about working with students with disabilities and that he was not fond of my son.

When the call ended, I found he had sent me an email detailing what happened. My son was playing a game in a large group. He became upset when he thought one of the other children was cheating. The adult intervened and guided them through peer mediation. When it was my son’s turn to listen to his peer, he became agitated, and from his perspective, the peer lied about having cheated in the game. The adult became upset with my son because his turn was over, and he was expected to listen. He raised his voice at my son, which scared him. My son ran. I assume he was running to an adult he trusted because he was running toward an office, not an exit. The adult reported in the email that he grabbed him by the arm and tried to place him in a physical hold.

When that was not working, he changed positions and tried a different physical restraint – all while my son cried and screamed “Stranger Danger” until a school employee came to help him.

I was angry and scared that this could happen in a place surrounded by people we trusted with our vulnerable child. When I tried to speak to my son about what happened, he was afraid. He was worried that he was in trouble. When I called to talk to the director about what had happened, the daycare quickly blamed my son. They held a meeting (without us) to discuss placing my son on a behavior plan. They presented us with incident reports from previous incidents stating that we had been notified at the time of the incidents- which we were not. It felt as though they were blaming my son to protect the employee’s wrongdoing.

I began asking questions and telling my story to anyone who would listen. I contacted The Department of Jobs and Family Services, our school district, School Board Members, and The Board of Developmental Disabilities in our county. I spoke to advocates, attorneys, and people at the state level. Everyone I spoke to was kind and empathetic, saying that while they agreed that what happened was wrong, they could do nothing. The only way to move forward would be to file a complaint on their licensure, which we did. (the only violation was that they did not provide us with an incident form after our son was hurt – no record of him being hurt by an employee) The other options were to file a police report or call CSB. I knew that action would allow the daycare to blame the individual, and the program would not change.

I wanted them to be accountable for what happened and to ensure that no other child would be at risk of a similar incident.

Thankfully, The program hired a new director several months later. She reached out to me for a meeting and was very emotional when I shared our story. She asked to see a picture of our kids and wanted to know more about them. She met with the school district, and they agreed to invite her staff to join any future Professional Development opportunities. Her team attended weekly training sessions, gaining knowledge about working with students with disabilities, de-escalating strategies, and the dangers of physical restraints.

It took me a year to find the courage and words to share what happened that day. I’m not sure if the individual who held my child while he screamed for help has remorse about those actions, but I hope that receiving education and training means this will never happen to another child in that program. And if you meet a boy who loves to share about books, jumps and flaps when he’s excited, and cannot handle peer mediation when he’s escalated, please be kind and stay calm. He’s trying and needs you to guide him through his toughest moments.

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