MADISON — After the death of their 4-month-old daughter Ahnika last August, Daniel Alesch and Trish Timo had replicas of her handprints and footprints engraved on her headstone.
They trace the imprints with their fingers when they visit her grave.
"It's like you're actually touching her," her mother said.
For the young couple, the pain of their only child's death was compounded by anger over the circumstances. Ahnika suffocated while napping in the home of a Madison child-care provider who was later convicted of repeatedly caring for too many children without a state license.
The provider, Kristy Kaltenberg, 26, has not been charged with any crimes directly related to Ahnika's death, but she was ordered to spend six months in jail as part of her probation for the licensing convictions.
Alesch and Timo said they thought they had been thorough in finding quality child care. In hindsight, they say there were measures they wish they had taken to learn more about Kaltenberg's operation.
By going public with their story, they said, they hope to help other parents avoid what happened to them.
"I want mothers to listen to their instincts, and that's not something I did," Timo said. "I doubted myself as a new mother."
Kaltenberg and her attorney declined to comment for this article. She retains strong supporters who say she is a dedicated child-care provider who is being unfairly criticized.
Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard said his office lacked proof beyond a reasonable doubt of criminal intent to charge Kaltenberg in Ahnika's death. Charges will not be filed unless new evidence surfaces, he said.
Child-care experts say a shortage of high-quality programs for the very young, coupled with an often-confusing regulatory system, can frustrate efforts to find safe, affordable day care. Parents are left to navigate a complicated system at an emotionally and financially vulnerable time, said Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association.
"Child care in the U.S. is not typically regarded as a societal responsibility," said Schmidt, who backs a state system that would rate centers on quality benchmarks. "Parents are out there on their own, pressured to make a good decision about selecting child care, but they often don't know where to access good information or what to look for."
Too many children
Ahnika suffocated while sleeping on her stomach in a broken crib, according to police reports. A corner of the mattress had no support under it, causing a depression that Alesch and Timo believe cut off their daughter's breathing. They said they had told Kaltenberg to always place their daughter on her back for naps, the current standard of care.
Alesch, 27, and Timo, 24, met three years ago and plan to marry. They were excited about becoming parents and bought a house on the city's Far East Side just a block from an elementary school.
They discussed living on one income but couldn't swing it. Alesch installs window coverings and Timo is a loan servicing assistant. By rearranging their work schedules and tapping a family member and a friend, they reduced the time Ahnika would spend in paid child care to two days a week.
Timo began her search by contacting Madison-based Community Coordinated Child Care Inc., or 4-C, which certifies child-care providers in Dane and Columbia counties. Certification is one of two types of regulated child care in Wisconsin. The other is state licensure.
Anyone who charges a fee to care for four or more children under the age of 7 who aren't related to the provider must be licensed. According to court records, Kaltenberg should have been licensed because she was caring for at least seven children unrelated to her on Aug. 29, the day Ahnika died. Five of the children were under age 2, according to police reports.
Providers caring for three or fewer children do not need a license but can voluntarily obtain county certification through an agency such as 4-C. Kaltenberg was provisionally certified through 4-C from November 2003 through October 2005, then let it lapse.
Certification is a lesser standard, but at the minimum, it ensures that the provider's house has been inspected and that the provider has passed a criminal background check and completed training in shaken baby syndrome. If caring for infants, the provider also must be trained in sudden infant death syndrome.
Regrets in hindsight
Working off a list from 4-C, Timo and Alesch interviewed five certified providers. Timo also checked Craigslist, an online site for free classified advertising. This is where she found Kaltenberg's ad.
Kaltenberg's home was ideally located for the couple, and Timo said she found Kaltenberg engaging. Kaltenberg charged $35 a day, the lowest by $5 of any of the other providers. Timo said affordability was a factor but not the primary one.
A 2007 survey of Dane County providers by 4-C found the average weekly rate for infant care was $199 and $196 for 1- and 2-year-olds. Experts say regulated care often is costlier because becoming licensed or certified requires more money, and finding part-time care can be particularly challenging because many providers prefer the assurance of full-time customers to cover overhead.
Timo said she asked Kaltenberg whether she was state licensed, and Kaltenberg said she was. The couple toured parts of Kaltenberg's home.
Looking back, Timo said she should have stuck to the list of certified providers because it was important to her that a provider be subject to inspections. Also, she would have asked Kaltenberg for proof of state licensure and verified it.
While child-care experts say legal, unregulated care can be of high quality, regulation brings with it not only an inspection process but also a formal complaint-and-investigation structure for times when things go wrong. This is a critical difference, said Jill Chase, director of the state Bureau of Early Care Regulation.
"In regulated care — licensed or certified — we have individuals investigating complaints," she said. "In an unregulated setting, no one really has jurisdiction if someone complains that their child is not being cared for properly."
Timo said she should have toured all parts of Kaltenberg's house, including the children's nap room.
"If we had asked to see where the children slept, we would have noticed that there were no baby monitors in the room, and that would have been a huge red flag," Timo said.
Providers should be willing to show parents all areas of a home, and parents should drop in for unannounced visits, said Celeste Swoboda of Chippewa Falls, a state-licensed provider and president of the Wisconsin Family Child Care Association.
Alesch and Tim did not ask for references, but it is unclear whether that would have made a difference. Six parents told police they were pleased with the care Kaltenberg was giving their children. One of those parents, Nicole Elliott, told the State Journal Kaltenberg was the best child-care provider she'd ever found.
"She's a wonderful person — kind and dedicated to children," said Elliott, who continued to have Kaltenberg care for her infant son after Ahnika's death.
Elliott said she knew Kaltenberg did not have a state license and that Kaltenberg never hid this fact.
"She did what she had to do to support her family. I understood that," Elliott said. "All of us parents knew what she was doing, and if we had a problem with it, we didn't have to stay."
Elliott said she thinks Timo and Alesch misunderstood Kaltenberg about being licensed. The couple maintain they were misled.
Swoboda suggested parents ask for names of current and former customers, as well as a professional reference who can speak to the provider's training and ongoing education.
A troubling comment
Two days before Ahnika's death, Timo said, Kaltenberg told her Ahnika had enjoyed a good nap while sleeping on her stomach. The comment floored Timo. She said she restated her instructions to place Ahnika on her back.
"We should have pulled Ahnika out right then," Timo said. "That was my biggest mistake — I didn't trust my instincts. We decided to give (Kaltenberg) a second chance."
On Aug. 29, the 15th day Ahnika was in Kaltenberg's care, police reports say Kaltenberg put Ahnika down for a nap at 9:15 a.m.
At 11:22 a.m., Kaltenberg called 911. "I have a dead baby. Oh, my God," a hysterical Kaltenberg told the dispatcher, who gave CPR instructions.
Kaltenberg later told police she had checked on Ahnika at 10 a.m. However, paramedics at the scene quoted her as saying Ahnika had not been checked on since 9:15 a.m., according to an emergency medical services log.
When a police officer arrived at the scene, Kaltenberg first led him to a crib that was not broken and told him it was the one Ahnika had been sleeping in, according to police reports. She later admitted to police that prior to the arrival of paramedics, she had folded up the crib that Ahnika died in and hid it in a closet, police reports say. Pressed by police as to why she did this, Kaltenberg revealed the broken mattress support, the police reports say.
This galls Ahnika's parents. "I don't think I'll ever forgive her for that," Timo said.
A difficult aftermath
After Ahnika's death, Timo and Alesch stayed with friends for a week. They couldn't bear to see their daughter's toys.
"Ms. Kaltenberg has sentenced me to a life without my daughter — a life I don't want to live and which isn't worth living," Timo told a judge during Kaltenberg's sentencing.
Alesch said he has struggled with wanting to take his own life. "I just want to be with her," he said of his daughter.
Next July, Alesch and Timo plan to marry at Rotary Botanical Gardens in Janesville. The park sells personalized bricks for its foot paths as a fundraiser. Ahnika's name will be on one of the bricks they walk down, they said.