Escaped toddler
Julie Powell of Billings reads to her son Carter 18 months Tuesday at their home in Lockwood.

Julie Powell was furious. Her 18-month-old son, Carter, whom she had dropped off at a Billings child care business, had wandered into traffic on Central Avenue, where he was rescued by a passing motorist.

Worse yet, Powell said, no one at the business mentioned the incident when she arrived later to pick up Carter and his brother Konnor, 3.

"The police called us to find out if we knew what happened," Powell said. "I went and picked up the kids and nobody told me about it. They let me pay for the day."

The name of the business: Toddler Escape Drop-In Child Care.

Powell had checked out the business, located on Central Avenue two blocks east of 24th Street West, before leaving her boys there. It was brightly lit, colorful. According to its Web site, Toddler Escape has been in business 20 years.

The business looked OK, but Powell learned later that drop-in child care facilities aren't government-regulated like licensed day cares. Montana does not inspect or license "drop-ins" - child care facilities where care isn't provided to same children on a regular basis.

Powell's account of the incident is corroborated by police reports. Police Capt. Joel Slade said reports indicated that a woman driving on Central Avenue spotted the Powell boy in the street and called police shortly after 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 26. Carter was returned to Toddler Escape, where his mother had dropped him off so she could play a round of golf with her husband.

Sarah Heiser, president of Toddler Escape, said Carter's escape was a fluke. She said nothing like this has ever happened before at the day care.

"From what I found out after going over it with my employees, it was a windy day and the back side emergency door blew open and the little boy went out the door," said Heiser, who was not working that day.

There were two employees and nine children at the day care at the time, Heiser said. When Carter got out, one employee was in the restroom and the other was with the children.

"When she came out and went out to look, she didn't see him so she came back in to take account of the kids," Heiser said. The employee found Carter sitting out front with a woman, who had called police.

She also said it was her understanding that Carter was in the side parking lot, never on Central Avenue. She said he couldn't have been outside more than a minute.

Heiser said the police officer inspected the facility and agreed the incident was a fluke and that Toddler Escape was a safe, secure environment.

Heiser said she waited to tell Powell because she was trying to get the whole story from her employees and didn't want to give Powell any misinformation.

She said she has since talked to Powell and issued her a refund and credit for future visits.

When Powell called state child care regulators hoping to file a complaint, the local state Family Services office told Powell to call the Child Abuse Hotline. If wandering unattended into Central Avenue put Carter in danger, the state Child and Family Services division of the Department of Public Health and Human Services would investigate as it would any private child welfare case.

"There's definitely concern when something like this happens. I don't want to give the impression that we're washing our hands of something like this," said Jon Ebelt, public-affairs officer for DPHHS, which includes Child Care Licensing.

But that investigation, from beginning to end, occurs privately. There's no mention of the incident in the state's searchable database of licensed day care facilities.

Heiser said she has not been contacted by the state or any other agency regarding the incident.

"I haven't heard anything further at this point," she said.

She also said that she has discussed the incident with her employees, reminding them to make sure the doors are securely latched.

A licensed day care in Montana creates a paper trail when warranted complaints are filed. The day care database lists licensed day care providers. It discloses whether they've been inspected and found lacking. It also reveals if they are under a plan of correction. The public can call the local Child Care Licensing office and get information about past inspections and violations, but only for licensed day cares.

Tracking the licensed facilities is a full-time job, Ebelt said. There are 1,200 licensed day cares in the state, of which 200 are in Billings. The state doesn't know how many drop-in child care services there are.

The state receives a handful of complaints a year about drop-ins, which isn't a consolation for Powell, who has become a one-woman notification service about Carter's trip into Central Avenue.

"Some citizen stopped in the middle of the road and picked him up and brought him back to the day care," Powell said. "I don't know the name of the person who did it, but I need to find out and thank them."

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