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    4-year-olds wander from preschool

    The two are unharmed, but the case is referred to the state attorney's office as a possible case of child neglect.

    By RICHARD DANIELSON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


    TARPON SPRINGS -- Tammy Sluder was driving Tuesday afternoon on Keystone Road when she saw something that brought her to an abrupt stop: two 4-year-old girls, with no adult in sight, walking along the shoulder of the busy road.

    Passing drivers were swerving into the oncoming lane of traffic to avoid hitting the girls, Sluder, 39, of Holiday later told Pinellas County sheriff's deputies. She pulled over just west of East Lake Road to check on the girls and flagged down a deputy.

    Deputies soon learned that the girls had wandered away from First Christian Academy, a day care center six-tenths of a mile away. As teachers at the academy looked for them, one of the girls told deputies how to get to her aunt's house.

    The aunt, 31-year-old Kim Law, said she was shocked when a deputy arrived with her niece, Madisyn Braithwaite, and a playmate whose name authorities did not release.

    "When I opened the car door, the first thing the lady says to me was, "We found them on Keystone and (East Lake).' I freaked out," Law said Thursday. "I just can't believe the whole thing even took place."

    Sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita said the girls were not injured, and that deputies had referred the case to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office as a possible case of child neglect.

    "Luckily it all happened during daylight hours," Tita said. "It was unfortunate that they slipped out of the school without being detected. We'll let the state decide whether there's any criminal charges."

    The day care center's administrator declined to discuss the incident in detail Thursday.

    "It was an unfortunate situation," First Christian Academy administrator Ramita Buckley said. "It involved two children in our after-care program that were missing from the playground. All I can say is we're just very grateful for the quick response of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department. We are taking every possible precaution to make sure that nothing like this happens again."

    When a reporter mentioned Law's indignation at the incident, Buckley said, "I understand her concern, of course," but declined to comment further.

    Law said Thursday that she was outraged that no one at the school had apologized to her sister about the incident.

    "Not one person has called here or my sister and apologized for anything," she said. Indeed, a few minutes after the deputy arrived, she said she called the day care center, asked about the girls and was told that they were at the preschool.

    "I said, "Why don't you look again because they're in my living room with a police officer,' " she said.

    Tita said the girls told deputies that they had left First Christian Academy through an open gate. The school's staff told deputies that the girls were in a group of about a dozen children on the playground about 4:15 p.m., but that a staff member realized they weren't there about 15 minutes later.

    It was around that time that one staff member said she took a child off the playground to change a diaper, and ended up talking to a parent who wanted to provide the preschool with a new telephone number.

    At first, one staff member continued to watch the children at the playground while two others searched the building and grounds. Initially, staff members told deputies they thought the girls might be hiding somewhere at the day care center because they had done so before.

    Tita said one of the staff members, 24-year-old Kimberly Wise of New Port Richey, told deputies that First Christian's employees did not call the Sheriff's Office immediately because they didn't know if the girls were gone or hiding.

    -- Staff writer Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or danielson@sptimes.com.

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