Nine children died in unregulated day-care homes in Virginia in 2014, making it the deadliest year for such homes in the past decade, according to a Washington Post analysis. Six children died in sleep-related incidents, and three died in fires at two homes that had no working smoke detectors and were over capacity.
The deaths have state leaders, for the first time in decades, intensifying efforts to bring oversight to unlicensed day-care homes. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) recently proposed regulating unlicensed day cares that receive state subsidies; several lawmakers are finalizing legislation that would require all day cares to be licensed; and the state Department of Social Services is exploring ways to strengthen regulations. The proposals are expected to draw strong opposition from some lawmakers and others who say the changes are unnecessary.
Legislation being drafted will take aim at the thousands of day cares that operate without oversight across Virginia. As long as the providers care for no more than five unrelated children, they face no licensing rules, no inspections, no training requirements and no background checks. State officials don’t track the deaths of children in the homes or know where the businesses are located.
In August, a Washington Post investigation documented 43 deaths in unregulated day cares dating to 2004. Since publication, five more children have died and three additional deaths have come to light, pushing the total to 51, records show. In comparison, 18 children have died in regulated settings in the past decade, including three this year.
Virginia has about 7,700 regulated providers that have space for 364,000 children. An estimated 200,000 children are cared for in unregulated settings. Regulated day cares are subject to a wide range of rules governing everything from smoke detectors to safe sleeping practices for infants.
The Post’s study found the previous high for yearly deaths in unregulated homes was seven in 2011. All nine children who died in 2014 were younger than 2.
A Sept. 19 fire at an unregulated day care in Lynchburg claimed the lives of 21-month-old Kayden Curtis and 9-month-old Dakota Penn-Williams. The day-care operator, Doris Diggs Lee Thompson, told firefighters that the fire started in the kitchen. She was caring for seven children that day, officials said.
In November, Thompson was indicted by a special grand jury of operating a day-care facility without a license, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail. A trial is set for February.
“She’s ruined. It’s one of the saddest cases I’ve ever had,” said her attorney, Gordon Peters. “It is just difficult for me to believe that she is in this kind of trouble.”
Four weeks later, an Oct. 21 fire at an unregulated home in Midlothian claimed the life of 1-year-old Joseph Matthew Allen.
When firefighters arrived, caregiver Laurie F. Underwood said that everyone was out of the house, reports show. But when the flames receded, firefighters found the child strapped in an overturned car seat in an upstairs bedroom.
The home had no working smoke detectors, and Underwood was caring for eight children, seven of them 2 or younger, said Lt. Jason Elmore, spokesman for Chesterfield Fire and EMS.
The fire was sparked by a backyard fire pit’s ashes, which had been placed in a trash bag in the garage, the investigation found.
Underwood, 46, also was charged with operating a day care without a license, a misdemeanor, and is scheduled to go on trial in January. Neither she nor her attorney could be reached to comment. Said Duncan Minton, Chesterfield County deputy commonwealth’s attorney: “All I can really say is after a thorough investigation at this time, it doesn’t warrant further charges.”
The six other deaths this year involved sleeping situations, as did about half of all child fatalities in unregulated homes that The Post documented since 2004.
In August, a 16-month-old girl was strangled by a car-seat strap in York County when her caregiver left her unattended in the seat for hours while she went to a veterinary appointment, authorities said. Kyla Denise Ziegenhagen, 31, was charged with second-degree murder and felony child neglect, court records show. Her attorney could not be reached to comment.
In October, Henrico County police were called to investigate the deaths of two infant boys, about a week apart, at unlicensed day-care homes. Lt. Chris Eley said both deaths involved sleeping situations. Both have been referred to the medical examiner. “There were no signs of trauma or foul play,” Eley said.
Henrico police also investigated the death of a 2-month-old child at another unregulated home in January. Eley said the child accidentally suffocated in bedding.
Two additional sleep deaths this year surfaced in recent months in records disclosed after an open-records request to the state Child Protective Services.
In March, an 11-month-old boy died in a Fairfax County home day care that had an expired state license. The boy died of “asphyxiation in an unsafe sleep environment,” records show. And in July, a 5-month-old boy died in a home in Fairfax that had no state license or local permit. Records noted that the death was ruled a “Sudden Unexpected Infant Death, associated with an unsafe sleep environment.”
Most states have stricter regulations than Virginia does for in-home day-care providers. Only three local jurisdictions — Arlington County, the city of Alexandria and Fairfax — regulate all day-care providers regardless of size.
In Virginia, lawmakers have long been reluctant to extend licensing requirements to all in-home day cares. Some fear that regulating the unlicensed ones could drive up costs for parents who need affordable day care.
McAuliffe told Virginia lawmakers two weeks ago that he will introduce legislation to regulate the 1,920 unlicensed providers that receive state subsidies.
“When a parent drops off his child at a day-care facility, anytime you entrust your child to someone else, you want to make sure everything is done . . . to make sure that home facility is safe,” he said while meeting with reporters after a speech to a joint meeting of House and Senate money committees.
His budget proposal would not affect thousands of unregulated day-care homes that receive no subsidies. When asked about this, Brian Coy, McAuliffe’s spokesman, said the governor plans to “announce further legislative changes” before lawmakers meet next year.
State Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington) said she expects a battle to move legislation — which would regulate providers beginning at one child — to the Senate floor.
“These are our children,” Favola said. “We regulate pet stores more than we regulate these home day cares.”
Del. Richard L. Anderson (R-Prince William), who also plans to sponsor legislation, said he would also like to see caregivers regulated at one child.
“But that is probably not going to be politically doable,” he added.
State officials are conducting their own review of state regulations and “considering options that will strengthen the licensing criteria and provide for additional protections” in home day cares, said DSS spokeswoman Joron Planter. The agency is expected to announce proposals next month, she said.
“Both the department and the administration are concerned over the growing number of child deaths in unregulated settings,” DSS Commissioner Margaret Schultze wrote in a internal e-mail this month to state staff that said her agency was working with McAuliffe’s office.
Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.