A toddler died Tuesday after he was left in an unregulated home day care that caught fire in Chesterfield County.
The caregiver, who did not have a state-issued day-care license, was watching eight children in her Midlothian home, authorities said. State law allows caregivers watching five children or fewer to be unlicensed.
The death of 1-year-old Joseph Allen follows a similar fire at an unlicensed home last month.
On Sept. 19, Doris Lee was watching seven children in her unlicensed day care in Lynchburg when a fire started in the kitchen and spread, officials said. Lee was unable to rescue three children from an upstairs room. Two of them, 21-month-old Kayden Curtis and 9-month-old Dakota Penn-Williams, died of their injuries. The third child was hospitalized and later released.
The findings of a law enforcement investigation into that fire will be presented Nov. 3 to a grand jury, which will decide whether to pursue criminal charges. Lee could not be reached to comment.
A recent Washington Post series revealed 60 fatalities at day-care homes in Virginia since 2004. Of those children, 43 died in unregulated homes. Many of the deaths involved risky actions by caregivers, The Post found.
Unlicensed caregivers are not subject to regulations. Homes of caregivers licensed by the Virginia Department of Social Services, however, must have fire and safety inspections. They also are required to have working smoke detectors, a fire extinguisher and an evacuation plan.
Tuesday’s fire in Midlothian started in a garage, according to Lt. Jason Elmore of Chesterfield’s fire and EMS department. Firefighters were dispatched at 12:16 p.m. and arrived at 12:23 p.m.
By that time, the fire had spread to the living area and an upstairs part of the home. The caregiver had taken seven children outside and to a neighbor’s home, Elmore said. She apparently did not realize that one child was still inside, he said.
“In the midst of all of that, she felt that she had gotten everyone,” Elmore said. “She was obviously very distraught and bothered by what was going on.”
Initially, firefighters’ efforts were hampered by heavy smoke, he said. A primary search found no one else in the home, but after a second search, at 12:52 p.m., firefighters discovered the toddler upstairs in a bedroom, Elmore said.
The house was heavily damaged. It took firefighters two hours to control the blaze.
The child died late Tuesday at VCU Medical Center in Richmond.
Authorities have not publicly identified the caregiver. They said she had a county business license but not a state day-care license. State child-care officials confirmed that the home was unlicensed.
The fire appears to have been an accident, but an official ruling will not be made until the investigation is complete, Elmore said.
“We work closely with our police department, and we will continue working closely together to determine if there will be charges filed,” he said.
Children’s advocates said the recent deaths show the consequences of unregulated day care.
“These two cases have been visible,” said Sharon Veatch, executive director of Child Care Aware in Virginia. “But there are other situations that we never even know about because they happen in unregulated environments. It’s heartbreaking.”