With her 7,600 square-foot mansion, complete with indoor basketball court and swimming pool, Latasha Jackson has become the public face of fraud and waste in Wisconsin’s program of subsidized day care, known as Wisconsin Shares. According to the Journal-Sentinel, Jackson raked in nearly $3 million in taxpayer cash since she got into the day care business in 1999.
But a more appropriate symbol of the system’s dysfunction may be Carolyn Lockett.
In late July, Lockett was sentenced to a year in the Milwaukee House of Correction for forgetting to take a four month old baby out of a day care van. The child, Seiaires McHenry died while sitting in an SUV parked outside the Kuddle Kare Day Kare. A few weeks earlier, another day care worker, Precious Marney, was sentenced to prison for leaving another 4-month old to die in a day care van in Milwaukee’s central city.
But it was Lockett’s case that raised the most troubling questions.
According to prosecutors, Lockett had an IQ of about 60 and read at a second grade level. She had the math skills of a first grader.
The assistant district attorney who prosecuted her described her as a “woman of decent heart not equipped to handle this kind of work.” The Journal-Sentinel’s Crocker Stephenson quoted the prosecutor as saying: “This appears to be the only bad thing she’s done in her simple life.”
And yet it was Lockett who was given the responsibility for retrieving the four-month old. According to police, the day care center’s owner, a woman named Maria Phillips-Collins picked up Seiaires from his home at 9 a.m.; when she arrived at the center the owner asked Lockett to bring him inside. Lockett first told police she didn’t hear Phillips-Collins’ instruction, but later admitted that she “forgot” to get the baby.
No one from the day care center noticed that he was missing until he was found dead at 3:15 p.m..
The Department of Children and families revoked Kuddle Kare’s license. But only Lockett was criminally charged.
Both the prosecutor and the judge acknowledged that Lockett was not the only responsible party; but the case begged several questions:
Why was a mentally disabled woman put in a position of responsibility in the first place? And who put her there?
Was the day care center so strapped for cash that it couldn’t afford someone more qualified? And even so, why weren’t any of the other day care employees held responsible as well?
And most troubling of all: How do children get mislaid?
And, finally, how did Wisconsin’s day care system become so thoroughly dysfunctional?
Consider: while Latasha Jackson and others were milking the system of millions of dollars, poor children were shunted off to centers that scrimped on their most basic responsibilities.
Meanwhile regulators ignored the red flags that should have warned them that scam artists were ripping off millions of dollars intended to help low income parents care for their kids. The same regulators missed the red flags at the day care centers that left babies to die in vans.
Politicians made the usual noises about fixing the broken system, but when the cameras were turned off, they watered down reforms. The fraud continued, the money flowed, and children kept dying.
While the state was paying Latasha Jackson the cash to buy herself a new Jaguar convertible, Carolyn Lockett was being told not to forget to bring the baby in.
And nobody noticed.
They were other people’s kids and it was other people’s money.
(P.S. OPK, OPM: remember the formula as the debate over the Milwaukee Public Schools heats up. Different names, different faces, same formula.)
-September 8, 2009