Virginia’s inadequate child-care regulations put its most vulnerable residents at risk


Finnigan Bales died in 2010 in an unlicensed daycare facility in Virginia Beach run by Deborah Blaney. (Family photo)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist September 2

In Virginia, a hot-dog cart, a nail salon and a pet shop require more licensing and regulation than some of the places that care for our tiniest, most vulnerable humans.

The booming business of small, in-home and unregulated child care has claimed the lives of at least 43 children in Virginia since 2004, a Washington Post investigation revealed over the weekend. Reporters David S. Fallis and Amy Brittain delivered the numbers along with heartbreaking details from families whose children died while in other people’s care.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

And whenever I have talked to parents who are exhausted, frustrated and exasperated by the search for quality, affordable child care in the state, it’s obvious that this is a crisis in Virginia.

Several thousand people operate in this state’s shadow industry. In most other places — including Maryland and the District — the moment you take care of a child in your home who is not your own, you need a license.

But in Virginia, a day-care provider can have five unrelated children before any kind of regulation or licensing is required. Advocates estimate that nearly 200,000 children in Virginia are being cared for with no oversight.

Sure, a small, in-home care setting with an experienced parent can be a tempting alternative to a larger facility. Phrases such as “home setting” and “loving care” and “experienced grandmother” pepper Craigslist ads. And for the caregivers, an in-home day care can be a viable business with flexibility that also enables a parent to stay home with his or her own children.

But all too often, it’s all about money. When you hear stories from grieving parents whose children died in these places, their fatal decision was almost always fueled by economics.

For Christina and Stephen Guralny, who were both serving their country in the Navy, the military child-care facility had a waiting list that was six months long, and they couldn’t afford to put two children in the pricey place where their firstborn had been going.

That’s when they found This Little Light child care, which was where their 3-month-old son was found dead on his stomach two years ago.

Day care in a state-regulated facility in Virginia costs about $300 a week. But even at those prices, there are only about 364,000 slots in the state — which is half the number of kids in the state who need care.

Take a look at Craigslist, and you’ll find dozens of unlicensed places for as little as $75 a week.

Plenty of parents have the luxury of turning down anything that doesn’t feel right. But many others do not.

When no one is watching, the results can be stomach-turning, as in the home in Bristow that had 23 kids running around the house — and one 10-month-old dying in her crib in a windowless basement that held nine other cribs. The under-the-table, illegal business was called Little Angels of the World and was described on its Web site as “state licensed.” The married couple who owned it, Rocio del Pilar Chavez Pacheco and Joan Carlo Barra, received suspended sentences and probation.

The thing that’s the most disgusting about the way Virginia treats the care of its children as an afterthought? This is the state where some leaders wanted to be all up in a woman’s business when she’s pregnant but takes a hands-off approach once her fetus is a cooing, smiling, crawling citizen of the commonwealth.

State lawmakers who fought to require any woman seeking an abortion to have a government-mandated transvaginal ultrasound are silent when it comes to unregulated child care.

These caring lawmakers also put a great deal of time and energy into regulating women’s health centers that provide abortions. They passed legislation in 2011 that requires these places to widen hallways, add parking spaces, update ventilation systems and more. This legislation, designed as a run-around to put abortion providers out of business, requires state resources for building inspections.

But dedicating state resources to regulate small, in-home child-care centers that can help keep families afloat and the state’s economy humming? Nope. They don’t want to do it.

If Virginia had decided to join the majority of the nation’s states on this issue and give a fig about the way all children are cared for outside their homes, the caregiver who swaddled 1-year-old Andy Ngo might have known that could kill him; the woman who layered extra clothing, a sweatshirt and a blanket on 11-month-old Rick Alan Bodine Jr. would have been taught that overheating an infant like that would be fatal; and the caregiver who had seven children in her home and didn’t have time to check on 7-month-old Finnigan Bales when he stopped breathing wouldn’t have had more kids than she could handle.

Caring for other people’s children is a serious business, not an under-the-table, free-wheeling business, and it deserves a little more care from the state than the corner sandwich guy gets.

Twitter: @petulad

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