In Virginia, church-run day-care centers are exempt from licensing standards

If Little Eagles Day Care in Norfolk had been a licensed facility, child-care workers would have been trained not to put Dylan Cummings down for a nap on his stomach on two foam pads with an ill-fitting sheet. They would never have been allowed to jam 10 babies into a hot, cramped, unventilated 12-by-12-foot room that fire marshals labeled a utility closet.

In court documents, prosecutors argued that one caregiver was watching 10 infants on that April morning in 2010. In a licensed facility, state law requires one worker for every four infants. The worker left to eat her lunch two rooms away, prosecutors said. Dylan and the other babies went largely unattended for the next two and a half hours.

By the time the caregiver returned at 2 p.m., the 11-pound baby wearing a brown T-shirt that read “Beary Cute” had turned blue. At 2:10, after a janitor tried in vain to revive him, paramedics pronounced him dead. He was 7 weeks and 5 days old.

Although each of the caregiver’s actions that day would have been a violation of state standards for a licensed child-care facility, the now-defunct Little Eagles was affiliated with Bethel Temple Church of Deliverance. Like 1,003 other child-care centers that Virginia records show are run by religious organizations, it was exempt from meeting licensing standards. The caregiver said in court that she had never been shown how to handle infants.

“I figured they were licensed when we went to take a tour. They seemed like they knew what they were doing. They were mothers. They were grandmothers,” said Dylan’s mother, Betsy Cummings. “I assumed they were inspected, like every other day care.”

Betsy Cummings poses for a portrait with her son Dylan in this undated family photo. Dylan Cumming died in a daycare facility that had a religious exemption. The daycare workers put him down on his stomach for a nap in a hot room that fire marshals labeled a utility closet with 10 other babies. (Family Photo)

Local prosecutors charged three child-care workers with child neglect and the director with felony homicide. But a judge later dismissed the charges.

“The Commonwealth quite accurately argued that had Little Eagles Day Care been subject to the regulation and inspection required of secular day-care centers, many of the [sudden infant death syndrome] risk factors would not have been present,” Judge Charles E. Poston wrote in his decision. “While the Court is certainly sympathetic . . . the remedy for this situation lies in the sound discretion of the General Assembly, not with the judiciary.”

Cummings, who at the time of Dylan’s death was a 22-year-old Navy boatswain, has since left the Navy and has been treated for depression. She and her husband are pursuing the case in civil court. And she is pushing state lawmakers to get rid of licensing exemptions for religious organizations.

“I just want to see that it’s safe, that it’s fair, no matter where you go,” she said. “I have to try to save another child. I have to try to keep others from feeling this pain I feel every day. That has to be why Dylan was put here.”

Brigid Schulte writes about Good-Life: work-life issues, time, productivity, gender and income inequality. She is the author of the bestselling Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One has Time.

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