Crime & Courts

Day care owner accused of driving kids while drunk

A Wichita day care owner accused of driving children around town while drunk faces charges of her second DUI offense this year.

Margaret E. Walker, 49, of Derby, was charged Tuesday with driving under the influence-second offense, DUI with children under 14, no driver's license, driving on a suspended license and not having a child under 4 in a child restraint, City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf said.

A DUI conviction with children involved is a mandatory one-month jail sentence, he said.

When Walker was arrested Friday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment suspended the license of her day care, Creative Connections Learning Center, 11818 W. Central.

"She should've gotten more than that because she put my children in danger," said Cindy Cocannouer, who thinks her twin 3-year-old boys were in the van with Walker.

Cocannouer said she wasn't aware that a field trip to a pumpkin patch was scheduled for Friday. She picked up her three children Friday evening at the regular time, with no explanations from day care workers of what happened that morning.

Employees said the center would be closed for a few days, but they offered no explanation, she said.

"They said, 'We'll be up and running in a week,' " Cocannouer said. "We're not being told what's going on."

Friday wasn't the first time the center's license was in jeopardy. The health department told Creative Connections it intended to suspend its license on July 30, spokeswoman Kristi Pankratz said. She said four complaints of violations have been filed against the center since it received its license in June 2008.

Parents had only heard rumors about the center being in trouble, and Cocannouer said she had no significant trouble with the day care until Friday.

Creative Connections appealed the license suspension, and the decision was pending a hearing that didn't happen before the emergency suspension on Friday, according to KDHE.

This isn't Walker's first time facing criminal DUI charges.

Walker pleaded guilty April 20 to a DUI in Butler County Court, according to court records. She used a name she used before a 2003 marriage and in other legal documents — Margaret Self — court records show.

Walker was sentenced to four days in jail and probation on the DUI offense that happened Feb. 12, records show. None of the related charges indicate children were involved.

The 12-month probation period started June 22, with conditions such as obeying all laws and not using alcoholic beverages, according to court records.

For a day care to receive and keep state licensing, all workers must pass statewide criminal background checks, according to the health department. Once workers pass initial background checks, they are checked for criminal history only if they are randomly selected in department spot-checks, Pankratz said.

But even if the department knew of Walker's February DUI, it might not affect licensing if it didn't involve the day care, she said.

The case Friday was different because it is suspected of happening while Walker, the program director, was "performing duties in the child care facility," Pankratz said. The threat to the children's safety is what enabled KDHE to immediately suspend the license, she said.

Police started searching for Walker on Friday morning, when day care staff called because she came to the center "smelling strongly of alcohol," the suspension notice states. Walker left before police arrived.

Employees called the police back when Walker showed up again, this time taking seven children with her in the company vehicle for a field trip, according to the suspension order. She was arrested when she pulled into the center's parking lot, according to the police report.

The day care center's closing leaves nearly 50 children's families searching for alternative child care and about five staff members out of a job, according to local child care services.

For now, Cocannouer, a single mother of five, has asked her parents to watch her children as she searches for new child care.

But with her trust shattered, it won't be easy.

"I don't know if I can put my kids back in day care," Cocannouer said.

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