Sacramento County's former "family child care provider of the year" was arrested Thursday on a charge of felony child neglect in the February death of an infant in her care.
Sheila Caceres, a 31-year-old mother of three, turned herself in at the Sacramento County jail Thursday night, where she was expected to be booked and then released on $50,000 bail, authorities said.
She had operated Sheila's Garden Daycare from her 2,800-square-foot home since 2005.
Caceres had been under investigation in the Feb. 23 death of 2-month-old Avin Rominger, who was found unresponsive in the upstairs of her Mather home.
She also is being charged with "repeatedly" violating the state Health and Safety Code by placing unattended infants in the upstairs of her home, while watching older children on the first floor.
Caceres faces up to eight years in prison if convicted of felony child neglect.
"My husband and I are very pleased with the District Attorney's Office for continuing with these charges," Rachelle Rominger, Avin's mother, said late Thursday. "We feel this is the start of the justice process for our son."
Caceres' arrest stands in stark contrast to the image she presented in February 2008, when the Sacramento Child Care Coalition honored her as provider of the year at a downtown gala. Nominated by parents, she was lauded by government leaders and education professionals for her "commitment to building strong, trusting relationships" and her welcoming spirit.
Three years later, the woman praised for pumpkin patch outings and backyard barbecues was being pursued by both the Sheriff's Department and the California Department of Social Services.
Sheriff's detectives say the case proved difficult to untangle because Caceres told conflicting stories about what happened to the baby that winter day.
According to Dave Rominger, Avin's father, Caceres greeted him as usual around 4 p.m. and calmly went upstairs, then came running back down screaming for him to call 911.
But Caceres initially told a detective she found Avin unresponsive in a downstairs crib. Later, she amended her version, telling Detective Darin Pometta that she left Avin sleeping upstairs in a car seat and sometime that afternoon found him unresponsive.
She said she picked him up, then placed him on his side in a portable playpen, rubbed his back and went downstairs until Dave Rominger arrived, Pometta told The Bee.
The baby was later pronounced dead at Mercy San Juan Medical Center.
"The reality is, with immediate medical intervention, Avin might have had a chance to live," said Sgt. Jeff Reinl of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Child Abuse Unit.
"Sheila's action or inaction eliminated any possibility for him to survive."
Reinl said Caceres' role as a trained, professional child care provider factored into her arrest. He said Caceres would be expected to provide "a higher standard of care than if you had teenagers next door watching your kids."
Caceres did not respond to numerous requests for comment from The Bee last month, but the attorney who handled her licensing case with the state said Caceres had nothing to do with Avin's death.
For the Romingers, the arrest of a neighbor they entrusted with Avin and his older sister marks a critical juncture in their search for legal justice.
But it does little to explain the medical mystery that still shrouds the death of their second child.
While the public has become familiar with a finding of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, that was not the case with Avin. Following an autopsy, the Sacramento County Coroner's Office listed his cause of death as sudden unexpected infant death, or SUID an important distinction.
SIDS is defined as the sudden death of an infant under 1 year old that cannot be explained after a thorough investigation. It is, says Sacramento County Coroner Gregory Wyatt, a "finding of exclusion."
In contrast, sudden unexpected infant death is a broader classification that applies to any sudden and unexpected death of a child under 1, whether explained or unexplained. About half of these are due to SIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A sudden explained death might be caused by infections, poisoning or an accidental suffocation.
The manner of death in Avin's case was ruled "undetermined" meaning the coroner could not conclude whether it was natural, accidental or homicide. But the pathologist noted that the delay in calling 911 was "a factor of concern since it is unknown if he could have been revived from whatever event caused his death."
In a similar case, a day care operator in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was charged this month with two felonies after a 5-month-old infant died in her care. As with Avin, the baby's cause of death was ruled to be sudden unexpected infant death.
Since Avin's death, Rach- elle and Dave Rominger said, they have been ostracized and shunned by other parents who used the day care, blaming them for Caceres' legal woes.
Caceres' day care license was suspended after Avin's death. State licensing documents show she also faced a number of other allegations, including lying to law enforcement, violating fire safety clearance, letting a child wander away from the home and engaging in sex in front of at least one child in her care.
Last month, in a deal struck with the state Department of Social Services, she agreed to a lifetime ban on operating, working in or being present in a day care home.