When it comes to finding child care options, many working parents turn to in-home day care providers to ensure their children will be properly supervised. But while these residential centers are a safe choice, some present serious danger to the families who use them. Such was the case in a recent fire in Midlothian, Virginia, where a fire in an unlicensed day care facility resulted in the death of a 13-month-old boy. Virginia State regulations state that any residential day care center, or “family day home,” must be licensed by the Virginia Department of Social Services if the center plans to take care of more than five children not related to the provider.
According to Chesterfield County fire officials, the day care operator, Laurie Underwood, told firefighters at the scene that she was taking care of eight children at the time of the incident. The children she was caring for included a seven-month-old infant, an eight-month-old infant, two 16-month-old toddlers, a 22-month-old toddler, a two-year-old child, and a six-year-old child. Unfortunately, 13-month-old Joseph Allen was mistakenly left inside the home for 34 minutes after the fire alarm first sounded. He died on Wednesday, October 22 due to injuries related to smoke inhalation.
While Underwood did hold a valid license to operate a personal service or day care center with Chesterfield County, the Virginia Social Services Department has reportedly found no record of Underwood or her home day care facility having been licensed by the state. Had she been licensed, Underwood have been required to install a number of fire safety measures, such as working smoke detectors and portable fire extinguishers. She would have also been required to create an emergency response plan and been subject to at least two unannounced inspections every year. A spokesperson for Social Services stated that the agency did not previously intervene because they had received no reports of complaints of a potentially illegal facility in Underwood’s home.
“This is a devastating tragedy,” says Elaine Errico of Hildebrandt Learning Centers. “We strongly encourage parents seeking care to ask health and safety questions such as: can I see the smoke detectors and fire extinguishers or sprinkler systems? What is your emergency plan and evacuation routes? In addition, what method of supervision do you use to account for all children at all times? Families should never feel uncomfortable asking about anything that keeps their child safe, safety is the most important thing.”
Chesterfield fire investigators reported on October 22 that they were still in the process of investigating the cause of the fire, which appeared to have started accidentally in an attached garage and spread to the house. While the fire was extinguished fairly quickly, Underwood had told the firefighters that all of the children had been evacuated. Additionally, smoke made it difficult for the firefighters to see inside the home during the initial search. Allen was found in an upstairs bedroom in a secondary search of the home and immediately rushed to the hospital in critical condition.Underwood currently faces civil penalties for running an unlicensed day care, but could also be charged with felony child neglect due to Allen’s death. A number of details yet unknown, including the cause of the fire, could determine whether or not she faces a felony case.