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Holly Harrison’s Georgetown day care seemed ideal.
Her home was clean and full of toys. Parents believed she had a full-time employee to help with the children; that she watched just six kids; that she monitored the infants’ every moment, even while they slept.
But the parents learned that none of that was true after 5-month-old Brody Havins suffocated in Harrison’s home on Jan. 13, 2016. A police investigation uncovered lies that Harrison told investigators and the parents who trusted her to care for their children.
Last month, more than two years after the infant died, Harrison was sentenced to 20 years in prison for her role in his death. Testimony at the mid-April sentencing hearing showed that Harrison waited at least 14 minutes and called or texted five other people before calling 911 after she found Brody not breathing.
Exactly why Harrison waited so long to call authorities is still unclear. Harrison told police that she wasn’t thinking straight. Her lawyers say she panicked. Prosecutors suggest that she did it, at least in part, because she was watching more children than allowed by state rules and wanted their parents to pick them up before she got caught.
Even today, some parents are still confused by what happened. To them, All About Kids was a good day care run by a woman they trusted. There were no concerns, no red flags, said Ashley Knussmann, whose now 7-year-old daughter attended the child care for more than two years.
But, like prosecutors, Knussmann suspects what really happened that day will never be clear.
“When all this stuff started coming out and there was more to the story and more lying, it kind of made me mad,” she said. “Why didn’t she just tell the truth? It might have helped her.”
More than 1 million children attend Texas child care. Parents do their best to choose a place where their children will be safe, using word-of-mouth or the Internet to find the right place. And the vast majority of them get good care.
Brody Havins was one of 10 children who died of abuse or neglect in a Texas day care in 2016. His case illustrates how parents can be misled into believing their children are getting better care than they really are.
In mid-April, two dozen people testified in Williamson County District Court about the case: Brody Havins’ family, law enforcement, mothers of other children who attended the child care, Harrison’s relatives. They talked about the events surrounding Brody’s death and how it affected them. This story is based on that testimony.
Harrison had run day care illegally
Brody was Kelly and David Havins’ “miracle baby.”
The couple wasn’t sure they could have a child — medical issues had presented problems — so when Kelly got pregnant in December 2014, they were ecstatic. They decorated the nursery light blue with a sports theme.
Brody was born on August 13, 2015. For Kelly Havins, it was the realization of a dream.
“It was life-changing,” she said.
Both parents had jobs. Kelly Havins worked at a sleep center. Her husband did electrical work. Neither could stay home with the baby full-time, so they started looking for child care.
The young mother didn’t like the idea of putting her son in day care, said Shirley Rich, Kelly’s mother. Kelly Havins had worked at one when she was younger and felt the children weren’t watched as closely as they should have been. A smaller, quieter center seemed like a better match for Brody, Rich said.
After checking out “a ton” of places, the couple heard about Holly Harrison’s in-home day care from friends, said David Havins, Brody’s father.
Harrison, 39, was a graduate of Georgetown High School who had worked in day cares for years, both for herself and other people. Prosecutors don’t know exactly how long she ran her own day care and how many children she watched because people can care for up to three unrelated children without having to register with the state for oversight.
But in August 2015 — after one of Harrison’s clients contacted child licensing officials because it seemed like Harrison was watching too many children to handle — the state determined she was running an illegal day care and needed to be registered.
In October 2015, Harrison became a “registered” day care, meaning she was allowed no more than six children full time. She was subject to state rules and an inspection at least once every two years. State rules include things such as keeping playground equipment safe, offering children water with meals and making sure employees are trained. If Harrison violated any of those rules she would receive citations ordering her to follow the rules.
Most citations do not lead to fines, probation or license revocations. The Department of Family and Protective Services maintains a website detailing a list of violations for which the facility has been cited.
Harrison didn’t have any citations at the time Brody died.
When Kelly Havins and Rich visited the home before enrolling Brody in October, they were impressed. But Kelly — who Rich described as an anxious mother — worried about her son sleeping at a stranger’s house because of SIDS. She asked Harrison if she needed to buy a baby monitor to help Harrison keep tabs on the infant.
“She said, ‘Oh no. There’s someone in the room with the babies at all times,’” Rich testified.
It gave them comfort.
Harrison, multiple parents testified, had led them to believe that she had a full-time employee to watch the babies: Brenda Michael. Michael, who had worked as a day care teacher for years, was there when parents dropped off and picked up their children.
What they didn’t know was that Michael was only there a few hours a day. Harrison paid her $10 an hour to come in at pick up and drop off times. For most of the day, Harrison was on her own.
By the time Brody died, Michael had stopped coming in the mornings, she said in court. Harrison said she didn’t need the help.
The delayed 911 call
Around 7:45 a.m. on Jan. 13, 2016, Brody arrived at Holly Harrison’s house wearing a onesie, gray pants and a gray sweater. He always wore baby mittens, something parents use to keep babies from scratching their sensitive skin, and that day he was wearing a pair with white and blue stripes.
Usually, Harrison later told sheriff’s detectives, she put the baby in a bouncy chair until about 8:30 a.m. Then she laid him in a portable crib for a nap in her bedroom. Generally, Brody woke up around 10 a.m.
But that morning, she told detectives, Brody didn’t wake up at his usual time. Instead of checking on him, she said, she let him sleep in.
At 10:30 a.m. — she looked at her clock, she told detectives — Harrison tried to rouse the baby, she said. But he wasn’t breathing. His body was limp.
“I noticed he was really pale and his eyes weren’t opening at all,” she said.
Harrison said she rushed into the living room, put Brody on the couch and began CPR. About five minutes later, she said, she called 911. Then she texted her teenage daughter to come home.
Detectives asked her how many children she was watching. Harrison said six and gave them a list of names. They later discovered she was watching eight, two more than she was allowed. Harrison made $5,000 a month caring for them.
Meanwhile, phone records and witnesses painted a different picture of what had happened in Harrison’s house.
At 10:17 the morning Brody died, Brenda Michael got a call from Harrison that lasted 35 seconds. Brody wasn’t breathing, Harrison told her.
“Hang up and call 911,” Michael recalled saying. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
But Harrison didn’t call 911. She called three parents, telling them that there was an emergency at the house and to come pick up their kids. She also texted her teenage daughter.
“Come home right now. 911,” Harrison wrote.
Then Michael arrived. Confused, she surveyed the quiet scene outside the house. There were no emergency vehicles, no ambulances.
Michael walked inside and saw Harrison standing over the couch where Brody was lying.
Why aren’t the paramedics here? she asked. Harrison said she hadn’t called them. Michael told her to call 911 immediately, then went to take care of the other children. It was 10:31.
While on the phone with 911, Harrison said, she saw Brody’s mitten in his throat and pulled it out.
Within a few minutes, Harrison’s daughter arrived. So did paramedics, whose station was just a few minutes down the road.
Brody was rushed to Baylor Scott and White, where he was pronounced dead at 11:32 a.m. The cause of death was asphyxia.
That night, Harrison deleted her phone calls to Michael and the three parents.
20-year sentence stuns courtroom
On Jan. 15, 2016, Harrison sat again at a little table in a small interview room with two detectives. The day of Brody’s death was a blur, she said, and she was still remembering the details of what happened. But under intense questioning by the detectives — who had already found inconsistencies in her statements — Harrison admitted that not only had she called people before calling 911, but that she had deleted those calls.
She later said she did that because she knew it looked bad that she had waited so long to contact 911.
One of the detectives asked if she thought Brody would still be alive if she had called for help sooner.
“I don’t know for sure,” she said. “But there’s a possibility, yes.”
It wasn’t long before Harrison’s day care parents started hearing what had happened. Knussmann said she was overwhelmed with emotions about the case: heartbroken for Brody, relieved that her daughter was safe, confused about what had happened. It was, she said, a wake up call about the potential dangers of day care.
When Knussmann had her next child, she quit her job and stayed home.
“That incident scared me,” she said.
On April 9, 2018, more than two years after Brody died, Harrison pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and no contest to injury to a child. A week later, a four-day hearing was held before Williamson County state District Judge Rick Kennon to determine Harrison’s sentence.
Prosecutors wanted Harrison in prison. The defense wanted deferred adjudication, which would keep her out of prison, but leave her subject to a variety of conditions.
Harrison never intentionally hurt the baby, said her lawyer, Elizabeth Whited. She simply panicked. And while she lied about some things, Whited said, she was honest about much of what happened.
But she did realize that if she had been watching fewer children, she might have checked on Brody sooner, Whited said, and that’s why Harrison took a plea.
“Brody’s death won’t be any less tragic if Holly is sentenced to prison,” Whited said.
Prosecutor Sunni Mitchell said Harrison’s conduct sealed Brody’s fate. Meanwhile, prosecutors maintained that they still doubted parts of Harrison’s story. They questioned whether Brody had actually choked on the mitten, suggesting that Harrison might have placed him on a bed or couch to sleep and he suffocated that way.
The courtroom was still when Kennon announced his ruling. On the charge of tampering with evidence, he sentenced Harrison to two years in prison. As for the injury to a child charge: 20 years.
Someone gasped. People began to sob. Brody’s family hugged each other.
Two years after Brody’s death, Knussmann is still processing what happened.
“It just irritates me that there’s not the whole truth out there,” she said. “That makes me upset. The truth would be the best for everybody. It would probably even be best for her.”