The case of the Knudsen family versus Tiger Tots Community Child Care Center in Madrid, Iowa gained national attention in 2013. The Knudsens had sued the center after it refused enrollment to their daughter Claire because of the child’s tree nut allergy. A district court initially found the child’s civil rights were not protected in such an instance.
But in January 2013, an Iowa appellate court ruled that district court had erred – and that food allergies may constitute a disability that must be accommodated under 2008 amendments to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
This was heralded as a victory for those with food allergies, but the Knudsens’ case still had to move forward. In early 2014, it was quietly settled out of court. As a food allergy consultant and educator, I was brought into this case as an expert witness. It is my view that the settlement suggests even greater implications – since Tiger Tots ultimately admitted fault through a “confession of judgment” and paid $10,000 in compensation, largely toward legal fees.
As an expert witness, I had access to much information, and gained insight into what we can learn from the case.
In 2010, the Knudsen family was seeking daycare services for Claire and, in the small town they live, the one option was Tiger Tots Community Child Care Center. Shannon Knudsen, who’s a registered nurse, met with staff members on several occasions to discuss accommodations that her daughter would need. Tiger Tots claims that Shannon Knudsen re-quested a guarantee for zero exposure to nuts. The mother contends that she only asked for prevention strategies such as: eliminating the use of hand lotions and soaps that contain nuts, and requiring that staff wash their hands before working with Claire.
Another discrepancy revolved around what would happen should Claire suffer an allergic reaction. Tiger Tots claimed that Shannon Knudsen asked that her daughter be transported by private car to a meeting point where a helicopter could pick her up. She denies ever seeking this.
I believe what contributed to the misunderstanding, and ultimately a lengthy lawsuit, was that there was no written food allergy plan. Instead of creating a plan, the only accommodation Tiger Tots offered was to allow the Knudsen family, at their own expense, to have an adult accompany Claire to see how she reacted to the environment. To the Knudsens, this was not an acceptable or financially feasible solution. With that ruled out, Tiger Tots refused to admit their daughter, stating that, “we have determined that we are unable to meet those [Claire’s] special needs with our current staffing levels.”
The ADA says that children cannot be excluded because of a disability. Attorney Laurel Francoeur explains that privately run child-care centers, with the exception of those provided by religious entities, must comply with Title III of the ADA. “This requires that child-care centers provide children with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in their programs and services,” she says. “They cannot exclude children with disabilities from their programs unless their presence would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others or require a fundamental alteration of the program.”
This means that providers who do not attempt to find reasonable accommodations when requested, open themselves up to a lawsuit. Today, Shannon Knudsen says she and her husband went that route “because we knew it was the only way to communicate the seriousness of this matter and really educate, not only the center, director and CEO, but also the community. Our goal in the end was that this would not happen to anyone else or us again.”
Both parents and providers should know that food allergies can be considered a disability under the ADA, which affords people with food allergies a right to be accommodated. It is important for prov-iders and families to work together to create an appropriate plan, and I strongly recommend this be put in writing. This ensures that everyone understands what accommodations are agreed to. With food allergies, this plan should include measures to reduce the risk of a reaction as well as an emergency response plan.
Tips for Parents:
- understand your child’s rights;
- communicate your child’s needs, in writing as well as discussions;
- provide medical documentation of the food allergies;
- provide an Emergency Action Plan;
- provide epinephrine auto-injectors;
- work with the school to create a written management plan.
Tips for Providers:
- understand your legal obligation to accommodate children with disabilities;
- have a general, written policy for food allergy management;
- work with the parents to create a written plan that meets the needs of the individual child;
- become informed of the rising incidence of food allergy in children and how to accommodate.
The 2013 CDC guidelines stress the importance of creating policy in child-care settings, and offer helpful suggestions:
- employ strategies to prevent a reaction;
- train staff about food allergies and how to respond;
- know and follow each child’s Emergency Action Plan;
- employ hand-washing practices;
- discourage sharing or trading of food;
- use non-food incentives and rewards;
- avoid the use of allergens in the classroom (e.g. craft supplies, soaps)
At the center of the Iowa case was a girl who was only 4 years old when the lawsuit started. Shannon knew that as her daughter got older, “she would begin to understand, and we did not want her to have to feel excluded due to something that she has no control over.” As adults, our focus must always remain on what is best for the child. For providers, the ultimate lesson from this case is to work with parents to create a safe and inclusive environment for all those in their care.
Gina Mennett Lee, M.Ed. is a consultant on food allergy issues. Her website is FoodAllergyConsulting.com.
• CDC Food Allergy Guidelines to Affect Schools Across U.S.
• Know Your Food Allergy Rights at School (includes food allergy plan info)
• School Resources Hub