A House committee is supporting omnibus legislation for greater oversight of home day care businesses in the aftermath of child fatalities in the homes of unlicensed providers, including the death of a 1-year-old Chesterfield County boy in a fire last fall.
The package approved Thursday by the Committee on Health, Welfare, and Institutions would lower the threshold for state licensing by one child — from six or more to five or more — a move that disappointed advocates who want any provider caring for three or more unrelated children to be licensed and regulated.
Still, advocates prefer the House approach of reducing the threshold for unrelated children to legislation moving through the Senate that would leave the threshold as it is but count young children related to the provider in determining whether the home must be licensed by the state.
“I think it is the simplest way for parents to find safe care,” said Emily Griffey, senior policy analyst at Voices for Virginia’s Children.
The committee voted 9-5 to approve House Bill 1570, sponsored by Del. Robert D. Orrock Sr., R-Caroline, and refer it to the House Appropriations Committee to assess its potential fiscal impact. The bill was endorsed by the appropriations health and human resources subcommittee on Thursday evening. The full committee will hear the bill today.
In addition to the licensing threshold, the omnibus bill would require fingerprint background checks for licensed day care centers and home providers, but not unlicensed providers and those with a religious exemption, who would be subject only to a name background check as they are now. The national fingerprint check would take effect July 1, 2017.
The need for a national fingerprint check was underscored by Ely Lafkin, a Rockingham County resident whose 12-week-old daughter, Camden, suffocated in an adult bed at the home of a provider who had a criminal record that was hidden from the name background check by five aliases.
The measure combined six bills proposed in the House to tighten oversight of day care providers. It would require unlicensed and unregistered family day homes to notify the Department of Social Services; require providers who receive child-care subsidies to comply with tighter federal requirements; require the department to recommend appropriate penalties for providers who don’t get the required license; develop regulations to require providers to notify all parents of emergency situations; and require commissioners of revenue to report when child day centers and home providers receive local business licenses.
The legislative interest was sparked, in part, by Joseph Matthew Allen, 1, who died from injuries suffered in a fire Oct. 21 at an unlicensed day care business in Midlothian.
His mother, Jacqueline, testified tearfully before a House subcommittee earlier on Thursday about her son’s death in the home day care business run by Laurie Underwood.
“She told us she cared only for up to five” children, Allen said.
Instead, Underwood cared for as many as 10 children in her home. On the day of the fire, she was caring for eight, six of them younger than 2. She had a Chesterfield business license, but not a state day care license.
The fire began in the home’s garage, where fire pit ashes had been stored in a plastic bag. Underwood told firefighters that all children had been evacuated from the house, but they found Joseph on the second search of the house in an upstairs bedroom in an upended car seat that belonged to someone else. He died the next morning of acute thermal inhalation.
“There was no fire extinguisher, no (working) smoke detectors, no emergency evacuation plan, and she did not have a list of the children,” said Allen, who said she learned of the fire from a television news report, not Underwood.
Allen was accompanied by three of Joseph’s grandparents — her mother, Carole Raine, and Herman and LuAnn Allen — who expressed outrage that Underwood was charged only with a misdemeanor for operating without a state license when one was required.
“It’s a travesty that an individual who was supposed to be licensed didn’t tell people and ... lied to families,” said Orrock, who warned that adding a felony as a penalty could have budget consequences that would doom the legislation.
Orrock served on a joint legislative subcommittee that was appointed almost 25 years ago to study the issue after the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission recommended in a 1989 report that the state license any day care provider who cared for one or more children not related to the owner.
He said the two-year study tried to “play the role of Solomon” in balancing the interests of children’s safety against intruding on family and small day care providers, or forcing day care “underground.”
Orrock said striking that balance remains what he called “a political reality,” but he acknowledged that lawmakers also have to weigh the deaths of Joseph and 53 other children in unlicensed and unregulated day care homes in Virginia over the past decade. “We’ve got to change,” he said.