Christina Kirkwood, a Woburn mother of two, has every confidence in her child care provider.
The day care, run out of the home of a Woburn family, passes all her tests: The caretakers are licensed. They came with great references. One is an official with the local Fire Department.
Still, she says, hearing allegations about a Wakefield child care provider was painful.
“It rattles me,” she said. “It bothers me a lot that this would happen.”
After news spread about the arrest of the Wakefield child caretaker on charges of a disturbing series of sexual assaults, parents and child advocates said the case highlights the challenges of guarding against dangerous child care providers.
Child advocates said the alleged incidents should remind parents of the measures they can take to evaluate individuals claiming to be reliable baby-sitters and nannies, most crucially, checking to see if a child care provider is licensed by the state.
Still, some parents and child advocates said, it is hard to know whether they can ever completely trust someone with their child.
“It’s just so difficult to imagine that a young child could be exploited in that way, because we just tend to not want to think about it,” said Jetta Bernier, executive director for Massachusetts Citizens for Children, a statewide child advocacy organization.
The man arrested Thursday, John Burbine, 49, provided child care through a business owned by his wife, Marian Burbine. She did not have a license to provide child care services, and, if she had applied, Burbine’s status as a registered sex offender would have prevented his wife from approval, Bernier said.
Checking for licenses is a key step in ensuring that a child care provider is trustworthy, Bernier said. But parents may not take that step, relying instead on friends’ reviews.
“When other parents who you trust say, ‘Oh, yeah, we used her and everything went fine,’ that almost seems more valuable to a parent than calling a state agency,” she said.
Taking steps to authenticate credentials can help prevent instances such as the crimes of which Burbine has been accused. It is an option that many parents do not realize is available, she said.
“What this shows us is, in this day and age, it’s important that there be safeguards and oversight,” she said. “We need to be asking some clear questions about whether a program is licensed or evaluated.”
Kathleen Hart, spokeswoman at the state Department of Early Education and Care, recommended that parents use the agency’s online database of licensed child care providers and child care referral agencies to search for licensed businesses, using their ZIP code.
Additionally, parents concerned about a child care provider’s credentials can call the agency to learn about the provider’s full licensing history, she said.
The department licenses 7,718 at-home child care businesses in Massachusetts, she said.
And while checking state sex offender registries can be an imperfect method for targeting possibly dangerous caretakers, Bernier said, websites such as SitterCity.com perform background checks and sex offender registry searches before allowing individuals to advertise baby-sitting services on the website. Sex offender registries list only those considered most likely to commit another sex crime, Level 3, and not those such as Burbine, a Level 1 offender.
Fear of dangerous child caretakers is why Kirkwood, 35, first turned to a day care center, rather than an operation run out of a home, for her 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. She thought a larger atmosphere would be safer: Her children would be out in the open, with multiple adults overseeing their care.
“Originally, I didn’t want a home day care,” she said. “I was afraid there wasn’t going to be any oversight.”
But Kirkwood said she eventually grew unhappy with the quality of care they received and switched the children to an at-home day care she has come to trust.
She said she feels confident that if her children were confronted with inappropriate actions, she would be able to detect a change in their demeanor.
“I know that I’m observant of my children’s behavior,” she said. “I would hope that I would be in tune enough with my kids to know I need to pull them.”
Ferrying his 13-month-old daughter through the rain in a covered stroller after picking her up from a downtown day care center, Anthony Tracy of South Boston said he was disgusted by the news of the allegations made against the Wakefield baby-sitter.
But, he said, he felt confident nothing like that could happen at the large day care that tends to his child. Because the day care centers they use are large, with several staff members on duty at all times, he said he knows his child is never alone with just one adult.
“Security is an extremely important thing we looked for,” Tracy said.