An Oxon Hill woman has been ordered to stop operating an unlicensed day-care center after Prince George's County police and state employees found 54 children in the woman's home, including nine infants in car seats, authorities said yesterday.
A lone teenager was watching over the children, who ranged in age from infancy to 10 years, when police and employees from the state Department of Human Resources entered the house in the 5100 block of Wheeler Road about 3:30 p.m. Thursday, authorities said. The older children were sitting on benches in the basement; there were at least 13 infants in bedrooms on the first floor, including those in car seats, authorities said.
Nannie Marie Pressley, 53, was served with a letter ordering her to stop caring for children in her home, according to Ardis Welch, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources. No criminal charges have been filed. Welch said the case has been referred to the Prince George's County state's attorney.
Pressley acknowledged in an interview yesterday that she was caring for children without a license, but said that on most days she had no more than 20 children, including eight or nine infants and toddlers, in her charge.
"Yeah, I know it was wrong," Pressley said. "Sometimes people ask you, 'Can I bring my baby over?' and you have to say yes."
She said that there were more children than usual on Thursday because she was giving a birthday party. She said she had left the children in the care of her daughter while she went to a grocery store to get supplies and food for the party.
Pressley said she kept the children in her two-story brick home surrounded by a wooden fence. The house, which Pressley said has 12 rooms, was immaculate and well-furnished when state investigators and a reporter visited.
In an interview, Pressley disputed allegations that she required the children to stay indoors in the dark and said that the basement room was darkened when police arrived because the children were watching a videotape of the film "The Little Mermaid."
In Maryland, it is a misdemeanor to operate a day-care center without a license, and violators are subject to a $500 fine, authorities said. Unlicensed day-care operators may be subject to felony charges if unsafe conditions are found at the center or if there is evidence of abuse, authorities said.
People licensed to care for children in their homes are permitted to have no more than eight children if they are classified as a "provider" and no more than 20 if they are classified as a "center," state authorities said. State law also prohibits licensed providers from having more than two infants for each adult employee.
"First of all, she wasn't licensed, and even if she had been, she had way too many children," said Roberta Ward, assistant director for compliance of the Department of Human Resources' Office of Child Care Licensing and Regulation.
Alexis Revis-Yeoman, spokeswoman for the state's attorney, said the prosecutor's office "is aware of the situation," but declined to comment further.
In April, Ward said, the DHR began receiving complaints from parents who had stopped taking their children to the home and alleged that Pressley was at times keeping more than 60 youngsters. The parents also told authorities that the children were not fed unless the parents supplied the food, and that they were kept inside, often in darkened rooms, and not allowed to play outside, Ward said.
On May 18, after receiving complaints that infants had been shaken and slapped, the DHR contacted the local protective services office, which in turn contacted Prince George's County police, Ward said. Investigators found no signs of abuse on the children they examined on Thursday, Ward said. Two parents interviewed by The Washington Post said they were happy with the care that Pressley provided for their 7-year-old sons. Both parents also said that they did not know that she was caring for as many children as authorities alleged, but would not have objected if they had known. The parents also said that they did not question whether Pressley was licensed.
"I'd take mine back today except that she was shut down," said William Lee. "I wouldn't hesitate to take my kid there or recommend the place to someone else. Mine loved it there."
Phyllis Day said that Pressley had cared for her 7-year-old son periodically since he was 2 years old.
"I saw children there but I never took the time to count them," said Day. "She was a very good babysitter and that's all I cared about."
Ward said that investigators found what they considered unsafe conditions and fire code violations in the home, including bars on the windows, key locks on doors to rooms where children were kept, alcohol in areas where children were kept and nonfunctioning toilets.
Earlier, Ward said, an undercover police officer posing as a parent was told by Pressley that she cared for 10 children in her home and that she charged $50 a week for a 15-month-old child. The officer was not allowed to see the children, Ward said.
Some parents told state authorities that they were charged $60 for infants and $40 for before- and after-school care, Ward said. Pressley denied that those were her rates and would not say what she charges.
Several parents told investigators that they did not question Pressley's qualifications because she had been recommended to them by teachers or staff at the elementary schools.
Sharon Quarles, principal of Barnaby Manor Elementary School, one of the schools where Pressley picked up children, said that the school provided parents a list of nearby babysitters that included Pressley's name.
"We are careful to make it clear that we are not making a recommendation," Quarles said.
Pressley said that she had been licensed to care for children several years ago but had stopped doing so and returned her state license after becoming ill. She said she had only recently begun caring for as many as 20 children.
Staff writer Michele L. Norris also contributed to this report.