Day care teacher Lindsey White knew she would lose her job when she called 911 to report that her boss drove off in a van full of 3-year-olds while possibly drunk.
"I knew once I call, we're done," White said.
The Creative Connections Learning Center is now closed with a suspended license, and its owner, Margaret E. Walker, is charged with driving under the influence-second offense, along with charges related to having children in the car and no valid driver's license.
White wasn't certain Walker was intoxicated Oct. 23. She never saw her boss take a drink, and she said she had no knowledge of Walker's DUI conviction in February — or that Walker was already fighting to keep the west Wichita day care's license.
"I was trying to give her the benefit of the doubt," White said. "But there was no turning back when I called."
She and another teacher confronted Walker about a vodka bottle in her purse and warned they would call police if she left. The teachers didn't want to become physical in a school full of about 50 children, White said.
"I think I did everything I could," she said. "We were discreet because we didn't want to make a commotion. We didn't want to scare people."
Walker did not return phone messages seeking comment for this story.
Nine employees have lost their jobs because of the day care's closing, and several teachers wanted to speak out about what they saw.
White said she doesn't want the day care staff to be confused with Walker.
"It makes us look bad — like we're in cahoots with her," White said.
One account of the day's events
Walker rarely interacted with children and didn't usually drive day care students, White said.
The center's assistant director, who usually drives students to school, had the day off, so Walker was substituting. White — whose 7-year-old daughter was driven to school by Walker that morning — said she didn't know Walker's driver's license was suspended.
Walker showed up two hours late at about 8:30 a.m., causing the school-age children to be late for school, White said.
Walker was "acting a little weird" by giving blank stares, but White said she "let it go."
After Walker left, White said she found her boss' purse open on a desk, with a bottle of vodka visible. She confided in another teacher, and White said they took photos with their cell phones and called the assistant director.
The assistant director told them to call 911. The officer who came out told them that because Walker wasn't there, there was nothing he could do, but he said to call back if she returned.
When Walker returned at about 10:30 a.m., White said she and the other teacher confronted her about the bottle in her purse.
"I told her I was upset — that's illegal," White said. "She said, 'Oh, it's from the night before.' That's not acceptable still," but Walker insisted nothing was going on.
"She had one of my children in one of the vans she took,'' White said. "I told her, 'I don't trust you with my child.' She said, 'I wouldn't endanger the life of a child.'
"I said, 'I don't believe it,' " White said.
She said she figured Walker would cancel the field trip to the pumpkin patch because of her strange behavior that morning.
White said they tried to take the keys, but Walker walked out and started the van that was full of 3-year-olds. She said another employee, who is also a parent, was driving a second vehicle.
Teachers threatened to call the police if Walker left, and White said Walker seemed to be teasing them during the standoff.
"'Do what you want to do,' she told me as she left," White said.
"She walked away smiling."
White said she immediately called police. A report shows that was about 11:15 a.m.
Teachers told police the field trip was heading to the pumpkin patch and the route taken, and White said they sent officers looking for Walker. White said she thinks they made it to the pumpkin patch.
She said Walker pulled back into the day care near Central and 119th Street West at about 1 p.m., allowing police to see her behind the wheel and administer sobriety tests immediately.
Walker's blood alcohol content was measured at 0.118, according to a police report. The legal limit for most drivers is 0.08.
White said finding Walker at the end of the trip might have been best. No injuries were reported.
"Unfortunately, we had to do this so she would get caught," she said. "If we didn't, she would not be caught, and this would still have been going on."
Parent Cindy Cocannouer said she finds little comfort — or credibility — in day care employees' side of the story. She said her 3-year-old twins were in the van with Walker.
"I'd be busting out a window to stop her," Cocannouer said.
She said she hasn't received any account of the Oct. 23 incident from any day care employee or the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which licenses day care facilities.
White said a health department employee who arrived after Walker's arrest told teachers to keep the day care open until the evening and tell parents only that the center is closing — and not to talk about Walker's arrest.
The center is required by law to send out written notice of the emergency suspension, but parents said they haven't received any.
State health department officials couldn't confirm whether the center sent out notifications or what the health department employee told day care staff.
Walker hasn't appealed the emergency suspension of the center's license, according to state records. A hearing on her criminal charges is set for Nov. 13.
Although parents and teachers didn't know how close the day care was to losing its license, many said they knew the day care and its owner had problems, mostly financial.
White said she quit two months ago. She said Walker didn't pay her on time and that she was frustrated that teachers had to scramble to scrape together meals and rides for children.
"I felt I was part of something bad," White said.
She said she got another job in day care, but she returned to Creative Connections because she missed the children and colleagues — and she heard management was improving.
But she found Walker was almost always late, White said. Several children were leaving the center, White said.
Shawn Salas said he considered taking his 3-year-old daughter out of the day care several times. But he didn't before his daughter ended up in the van with Walker on Oct. 23.
Salas said he was concerned that his daughter wasn't receiving enough food and was being disciplined too harshly. He said his most recent confrontation with Walker was when she blamed him for the center not having his daughter's physical on file, for which she said she received a fine.
"It's been just terrible," Salas said. "It's put something in the back of my head — is there a good (day care) out there?"
Day cares are inspected once a year, and teachers said Walker told them not to worry about the violations that inspectors pointed out in June. No teachers interviewed for this story said they knew of the state's intent to suspend the center's license, which was issued July 30.
"Meg laughed about (the inspector) after she left," said JoAnn Hackett, who worked at the day care for about one year.
The inspector pointed out several violations to Hackett in the baby room in which she worked, including older babies who should be separated from the infants, cabinets that weren't child-proof and an electrical cord that was potentially in reach of the children.
Hackett said she won't receive unemployment because she was a part-time employee and receives Social Security payments for a disability.
Teachers said they are considering hiring an attorney to try to recoup weeks of back pay they said is owed to them.
Hackett said that in the meantime, she's applying for other child care jobs.
"As soon as I wrote down Creative Connections, it's, 'You're from that day care?' " Hackett said.
"I'm from that day care, but I'm a good care giver. Lindsey did the right thing, and I don't know what anyone else could've done."