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Alabama Watch’s primary mission is education

Marianna Neighbors and Douglas Hernandez have something in common.

Ms. Neighbors is a senior citizen whose husband died in a nursing home.

Baby Douglas Hernandez, aged 10 weeks, died while in a daycare center.

Both their faces adorn the Alabama Watch office walls; both are heroes in the movement for consumer justice.

Ms. Neighbors stepped forward to lobby for the legal rights of nursing home residents in memory of her husband during the contentious legislative session of 2002.

During that session, the Alabama Nursing Home Association put all the power of their well-funded lobby into pushing laws that would have restricted the civil rights of nursing home patients.

The fight resulted in an Alabama Watch slogan, “They have the money, but we have the people”.

The Nursing Home Association’s effort was stopped.

In 2004, Baby Douglas’ parents, Mary and Robert Hernandez, led the fight for the safety of children in daycare, resulting in the “Baby Douglas Law”, which was signed by Governor Riley on May 17, 2004.

The Hernandez family met Alabama Watch through their attorney, Greg Breedlove of Mobile.

The family was determined that no other parent suffer the tragedy they had experienced, and they, and Attorney Breedlove, asked Alabama Watch to help.

The decision was not easy.

Alabama Watch is a small organization, with just two staff members to perform statewide work.

Fund-raising takes a big bite out of the time apple, since individual donations are the primary funding source, But at our inception in 2001 we had pledged to “look out” for the frailest of consumers, our elderly and our kids.

We took on the struggle.

The incident surrounding the Baby Douglas Law was a heartbreaker.

Robert and Mary Hernandez had done their homework when their son Douglas was born.

They got lists from the Alabama Department of Human Resources of available and appropriate day care for their infant son.

They visited and researched.

Finally they chose a licensed day care home, believing that the home atmosphere would be better for their baby.

Douglas was a healthy and happy child.

And then one day, when Douglas was 10 weeks old, the daycare provider called them to tell them they were rushing Douglas to the hospital.

It was too late.

The baby died, and it was ruled a SIDS death.

Robert and Mary just could not accept the ruling.

They knew they had left a perfectly healthy baby at daycare.

They questioned, and they pushed.

Their two-year struggle for justice is still far from over, but what they found out was that their baby had several different kinds of over the counter cold medication in his system when he died, and the amounts indicated the medication had to have been administered by someone at the day care provider’s facility.

When they went to the local DA, they were told that there was no criminal law, but that they could file a civil case.

They set out to change the law, and together with Alabama Watch and some Alabama Legislators, they did just that.

Alabama Watch’s primary mission is consumer education.

We provide written material, educate and inform community, civil and church groups and tell people where to turn for help.

Unfortunately, the consumer laws in Alabama, or the lack of consumer laws, often result in people hitting a brick wall when it comes to help.

In that case, Alabama Watch not only educates consumers, but also tries to get the people comfortable with the public policy process so changes can be made.

Alabama Watch puts a real face on important consumer issues.

In the process of making change, we all grow and learn.

For instance, Mary and Robert Hernandez learned that people really do care.

They learned how the staff at the Alabama Legislature works hard, is always pleasant, and that they don’t get overtime pay for their long hours during the session.

They learned that most legislators work long and difficult hours, that they try to understand all aspects of often-complicated legislation, and that they try to make compromises that will satisfy the majority of the public.

They learned the system isn’t perfect, but that if people will only get involved, that the system can work.

It may take a while.

It may even take years, although in Baby Douglas’ case it took just one legislative session.

It was passion that fueled this victory; the passion and commitment of the parents, of Representative Spencer Collier and Senator Roger Smitherman, and of Alabama Watch.

Along the way organizations like FOCAL, Voices for Alabama’s Children and the Alabama Trial Lawyer Association stepped up to help.

In addition, our consumer activists from all over Alabama got involved with letters, faxes and e-mails to the legislators.

And at the Legislature, there was a bi-partisan effort to help get the bill passed.

Our website at www.alabamawatch.org contains information on the Baby Douglas Law and what it may mean to childcare providers, most of whom are caring, responsible individuals.

We will continue our efforts to bring a measure of justice to Alabama consumers, but we can’t do it without your help.

We want to thank all of the people who helped, who said prayers, who spoke up and who worked to make the Baby Douglas law a reality.