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Melanie Audette and her husband, Alain, stand in their eastern Ottawa backyard on Oct. 1, 2013. They lost one child due to an accident at an unlicensed facility three years ago.DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

Melanie and Alain Audette understand all too well the terrible cost of child care that cuts corners.

Three years ago, their firstborn, Jeremie, then 2, drowned in a backyard swimming pool during a "play date" arranged by five unlicensed child-care providers. According to testimony at the inquest into his death, 30 children were at the house, and Jeremie "fainted," the eight-year-old girl who found him told police, " 'cuz we didn't notice him for a while." The pool was supposed to be off-limits, but the toddler had climbed in unnoticed. The woman paid to look after him later said she was helping other childen, and was unable to see the water.

Looking back, the Audettes, who live in the Ottawa suburb of Orleans, believe they did everything possible to make sure their son was safe in daycare.

Despite getting on waiting lists early, a spot in a licensed centre didn't open up before Ms. Audette, a nurse, had to return to work. So she and Alain, a hospital technician, had to find a spot at an unlicensed home daycare – the kind of care that falls outside government regulations, and which many Canadians families must use when spaces in regulated care don't open up.

They narrowed their options using a reference from a friend. The caregiver, in this case, had adopted two children, and her husband was a teacher, who helped out with children in the summer – both of which the Audettes found reassuring.

When Ms. Audette visited, she brought a long list of questions – ones that pop up on an Internet search under "what every parent should ask a caregiver." The answers were satisfactory. She also watched the caregiver in action with Jeremie, over several days, including one outing to another home.

And, as the months passed, her son was happy – sometime he didn't want to leave. Even so, his mom was watchful. "Every time I picked Jeremie up [at the home], I would take off my shoes and walk right in," she recalls.

But in the end, her husband concludes, "you don't know who is looking after your kids."

The Audettes say they had no idea that Jeremie would be visiting another home daycare on that July day. By then, they had already become disappointed with the educational activities at the home, and planned to move their son when a spot with a new caregiver opened in October.

At the inquest into Jeremie's death, the jury recommended the province create a registry of unlicensed child care. This has yet to happen and, even so, without tougher regulations and inspections, it is unclear how a registry would improve the quality of care. A recommendation to ban pools at homecare sites in the Ottawa area has taken effect.

Meanwhile, the Audettes have secured spots for Jeremie's younger sister and brother at the centre located at their neighbourhood school. This will cost a hefty $30,000 a year, but they wanted the best they could find.

Still, they feel for families trapped on waiting lists for centres that will never call them. After Jeremie's death, Ms. Audette says, "everybody was extra careful finding spots, but as years go by, new parents will forget. The same cycle will start again, and parents will put their kids wherever there's a space."

And hope it's a good one.