CLEARWATER — The 10-month-old boy was squirming on the day care center's diapering table. The caregiver — frustrated that he wouldn't stay put — bent his tiny leg back until it broke.
She didn't mean to hurt him, Stacey Doty told authorities at the time. She was just trying to hold him in place.
But when licensing officials and a Pinellas County jury took a closer look at the day care center owned by KinderCare, the nation's largest child care chain, they found a disturbing pattern.
Several workers and parents said they had told the center director that Doty was mishandling children. One co-worker said Doty had dropped a clipboard on a toddler's fingers as punishment and had picked up another toddler by the wrist and moved her across the room because she wouldn't obey.
Last week a jury awarded the boy whose leg was broken in 2006 $3 million in damages, $2 million of it punitive.
"KinderCare dropped the ball from top to bottom. If somebody is mishandling babies, you are responsible,'' juror Brian Fick said. "Stacey should have been discharged long before that.''
About the time the infant's leg was broken, licensing authorities were monitoring five of KinderCare's six Pinellas County centers for serious or repeat rule violations. KinderCare has since cleaned up its violation history.
"We deeply regret the incident that occurred,'' KinderCare spokeswoman Dr. Elanna Yalow said in a statement. "We remain committed, as we have for the past 40 years, to providing a safe place for children to learn, play and grow.''
Doty was fired after the broken leg, pleaded no contest to felony child abuse and was sentenced to a year in the Pinellas County Jail. She could not be reached for comment.
The boy's parents, Deon and April Esterhuizen, of Clearwater, declined comment through their St. Petersburg attorney, Wesley Straw.
The day care center, at 3245 Ulmerton Road, has been open 20 years. At the time of the broken leg, fees could run $1,000 a month, among the highest in the county.
Doty, now 35, was hired seven years ago. In 2005, the center called 911 to take her to the hospital — a few weeks after she was assigned to work alone with a class of toddlers. Director Sharon Bailey said Doty had a severe headache. A co-worker said Doty had an attack "caused by stress.''
She was reassigned the next day to an infant room with another caregiver and six children. Several co-workers later told authorities that the other caregiver had a peculiar habit: She would stretch a plastic bag across her face to distort it and make growling noises that would scare the babies.
In September 2006, the other caregiver went on a break, leaving Doty alone with the six infants. She broke the Esterhuizen boy's leg while changing his diaper.
When the parents' lawsuit went to trial last month, the boy's leg had long since healed. The issue was whether he had suffered lasting brain trauma.
Several witnesses had said Doty sometimes dropped infants into their cribs. One girl's head reportedly bounced against the crib's backboard.
The Esterhuizens said their son sometimes stared into space or had inappropriate eye movements, evidence of seizures.
No brain scan was taken and even the parents' medical experts acknowledged that no brain damage could be traced directly to the day care center.
One medical witness described the boy, now almost 4, as bright and verbal.
The parents contended that the boy sometimes held his arm strangely when he ran, but the defense took surveillance videos outside the family's home and at the beach that showed the boy playing normally.
Still, the jury awarded $250,000 for future medical costs plus $750,000 for future pain and suffering, based on a belief that the boy suffered brain trauma, juror Fick said.
There was some evidence of swelling, Fick said, and "there was a history of this lady and the way she was tossing babies around.''
In Yalow's statement, KinderCare laid the blame on Doty: "In this unfortunate incident, an employee acted in a manner that is contrary to everything we stand for.''
But the jury faulted center director Bailey for not heeding repeated warnings that Doty was mishandling children, Fick said.
The jury also wondered why KinderCare did not install cameras so supervisors could monitor classrooms.
With 1,700 schools in 38 states, KinderCare grossed $1.5 billion a year, Fisk said. "Take a little of that and install cameras.''
As of now, KinderCare and a parent corporation called Knowledge Learning have 16 centers in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Only one is being monitored because of a serious violation or series of smaller violations.