Family Unfriendly

How Hermann Hospital and the Texas Medical Center left employees' kids high and dry

Well, the Hermann Hospital Tag Along Kids Day Care Center is history now -- abruptly shut down last week -- and hospital officials just don't want to talk about it. Neither do Texas Medical Center officials, who also played a key role in this debacle.

Consider how these two fine me-no-Alamo institutions have acquitted themselves in this low-rent caper:

* Although the boards of Hermann Hospital and the Texas Medical Center had an agreement five years ago that the day care was lodged in a temporary structure, parents weren't told that the only day care on the medical center's inner campus was in jeopardy and would need to move or close someday.

* Although Hermann knew the end was near, that it had supposedly exhausted its resources in searching for another first-floor site, it continued accepting new children, never telling parents that the day care might not be there a few weeks later. Some of the babies and children being booted had enrolled in the day care only days before receiving the notice that they'd have to find another place. Some parents had even changed residences to be closer to the day care and their work, and now find they will have to leave home, drop their young children off somewhere far from the medical center and then return to where they started for work.

* The day care was used as a recruiting tool to attract nurses and doctors not only to Hermann but to University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor and the UT-Houston Health Science Center. Here was a place where medical personnel could work those 12-hour shifts and more and still stay in touch with their babies.

* Parents were notified of the shutdown personally and warmly with a "Dear Parents" typed note dropped off in their mailboxes at the day care. Several said they did not find out about a meeting to explain the closure until after it was over.

* Attempts by parents to get answers as to why the day-care shutdown couldn't be delayed and why something couldn't be worked out were met with conflicting statements and eventually silence. Parents say they were told by Hermann people that Hermann didn't want to shut down, but the Texas Medical Center was enforcing its 25-foot setback provision and they had to close. So the parents went to Texas Medical Center people, who parents say told them this was Hermann's move but said they were open to discussions if someone would just propose something else to the board.

Naturally, with all this information about and none of it terribly concrete, rumors abounded. Parents will tell you now that they believe this was just a financial move on Hermann's part, with ground-floor space in the medical center at a premium, that the day care will be replaced with a physical therapy office or some other medical unit, that Hermann didn't want to deal with day-care staff training problems, with alleged violations of state day-care regulations, with drips from the ceiling.

All of which sounded plausible enough and worth checking. But when the Press attempted to get answers, spokespeople for the Medical Center and Hermann each said, in statements delivered separately (though perhaps not constructed independently), that enough had been said already, that they were not answering any more questions, and that the issue had been "resolved."

Just so you know who those officials and spokespersons are, their names and titles are James Eastham, CEO of Hermann Hospital, whose me-not-talking-anymore message was delivered by public relations spokeswoman Patty Riddlebarger; and Shelby Rogers, executive vice president of the Texas Medical Center, whose I've-said-all-I'm-going-to-say pronouncement was delivered by PR exec Linda Winters. Lurking in the background in all this decision-making were their esteemed colleagues Richard E. Wainerdi, president, CEO and COO of the Texas Medical Center, and Kuyk Logan, head of public relations for the Memorial Hermann System. Again, these fine folks all declared the situation resolved. In fact, Hermann spokeswoman Riddlebarger, herself the parent of two children at the day care, serenely maintained that parents had been informed, had had their questions answered, and all was well.

Maybe for Hermann and Med Center officials. Certainly not for all the parents. And definitely not for the children.

Jennifer Lyons is a first-time mother of a four-month-old daughter. She works for Hermann as a nursing case manager. It's a stressful, well-paid, exciting job, and she has loved working for Hermann for the last seven years. When she became pregnant, things got even better when she was finally told two weeks before her due date that Hermann's day care had room for her baby. She immediately withdrew her name from all other day-care waiting lists. She would be able to be close to baby Hailey during the day and even nurse her on breaks.

But now Hailey will be going to a day care closer to their Clear Lake home at $65 a week more than the family was paying at Hermann. And Lyons wonders if the hour's drive to and from work each day is worth it anymore.

She predicts that several parents will leave employment in the medical center, some because they simply can't find day care to fit their long and sometimes inconvenient hours, others because why drive all the way from suburbia if you can get a day care and a job closer to home?

"They stuck a note in our box. That was really bad faith," Lyons says, referring to the notice dated March 30 from Karlene Karfoot, Hermann vice president for Patient Care Operations. The letter expresses "regret" and announces the day care will close May 28 and that its hours will change in May. Missing is any explanation why the day care is closing.

"Two months is not an adequate amount of time to look for a quality day care," says Lyons. She says she and others took their concerns to Hermann officials but got nowhere.

Although her immediate supervisor at Hermann has been very understanding, Lyons says top Hermann officials have no idea what she's going through and what they've done to her life and the lives of all the people who were using the day care. This is because they don't have young children themselves, she feels.

"I think this is a real step backward. In this day and age we're supposed to be advocating for children. This is a hospital. They're supposed to care about children."

Listen to Lyons, and a sense of betrayal comes through. She loves working for the hospital and thinks it does excellent, important work. She expected a caring, loving concern on Hermann's part for herself, her family. Instead, she got an impersonal memo, disrupting her life.

Tina Little is a biochemist at UT-Houston who had a five-month-old son, Duncan, at the Hermann day care. She and her husband, Brian, who works in the oil industry, have led the charge among parents, demanding answers and asking that the decision to close be rescinded or at least delayed. They gathered a petition with more than 200 signatures on it, pleading that the day care stay open.

"My baby was not the last one in, and he'll have been there three months when it closes," Tina Little says. Although many of the parents have found other day cares, some have not -- particularly those who work the second shift at night, she says.

"If you're a single parent or you both work shifts or you don't have family down here, this is really hard," she says. Her child, whom she had been breast-feeding, is going to a day care near their Pearland home.

The abrupt notice left day-care teachers in limbo, too. According to Tina, the workers were told they could not have time off to look for other jobs and had to work through May 28. But, as she noted, "they do have sick leave, and they're taking it."

Tina's husband, Brian, who exhibits certain bulldog characteristics in his attempts to drum up community interest in the issue, sent Hermann a memo entitled "Top Ten Reasons Why Closing Hermann Daycare is Shortsighted, Wrongheaded, Bureaucratic Nonsense." Included were such observations as "Giving parents who have signed their children up this past year the FALSE impression that Tag Along Kids was a viable long-term day-care option for them was a breach of trust bordering on Deception." This did not endear him to the powers that be.

He doesn't care. He wants to make them just as uncomfortable as they've made him and his family, particularly his son, who will be in and out of a day care after just a few months.

"If they would have told us about this before we started... Why get him signed up and get him yanked out two months later?" Brian asks.

As for the Texas Medical Center, Brian describes its officials as "Pontius Pilate washing their hands of this whole thing."

College professor Jim Brown, whose one-year-old was at Hermann's day care and whose wife works at M.D. Anderson, was another letter writer. In his missive, he wondered if Hermann has abandoned its "partners-in-caring" mission in favor of making money.

"Gone will be the days when future employees will want to become a part of this Hermann family because it offered more than a paycheck, but benefits that were truly supportive to the employees and their needs," he warned.

Brown figures Hermann didn't want to fool with the day-care center anymore. In the weeks leading up to the closure announcement, some parents had complained about structural problems, including a persistent leak, he says. "We were asking them to be somewhat more responsive, but no one wanted it to be closed."

Hermann and Texas Medical Center officials can dismiss the complaints of people such as Tina and Brian Little, Jim Brown and Julie Lyons as coming from the "disgruntled" types. They can assure themselves that they had to do a tough job and they did it the best way anyone could.

To discount these people, of course, is to continue to evolve into impersonal, efficient, bureaucratic machines -- institutions that will become known for placing little value on employees' families and children, and on women in the workplace, no matter how many slogans the PR machines churn out to the contrary.

Hermann officials can continue to refuse to answer questions about why its personnel gave so little notice to parents and, even more damning, why they continued to accept new children into the day care without even a hint of the trouble ahead.

They have time and power on their side. On the other side are about 80 families who will move on to other day cares and get busy with other things. They can't crusade forever.

Hermann and the Med Center are counting on silence, time and forgetfulness to override the anger and hurt that's out there now. After all, no one was physically injured. No lives were threatened. No one was killed. This isn't World War III.

This is just a case of some big guys dumping on small guys and having the arrogance not even to try to do it particularly well.

And perhaps that's all you have to remember the next time you read a warm and fuzzy message about Hermann or a glowing report on the progress of the Texas Medical Center.

Tuck the words "Tag Along Kids Day Care" in some corner of your mind and trot them out whenever you have the urge to get swept up in euphoric projections of that patch of real estate. But don't ever ask them about it. They're not talking.

E-mail Margaret Downing at margaret_downing@ houstonpress.com.

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