Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Daycare Terror

by Katherine Scardino

Last month, a tragic event occurred in my hometown of Houston, Texas. On February 25, 2011, four children were killed, and three children were injured, in a daycare fire.  The fire erupted at a residence that also served as a child-care facility called Jackie’s Child Care.

The owner of the home, Jessica Tata, lived in the home and also owned and operated the daycare center. The fire broke out at about 1:30 on a Thursday afternoon. When firefighters arrived, they found two injured children outside the home and learned there were five more children trapped inside the burning house. Firefighters were able to rescue the children who were trapped inside and took all seven to the hospital. Three of the children died the following day in the hospital, and a fourth child died in the hospital a day later. The victims of this horrific accident ranged in age from 18 months to three years old.

So, what happened? Where was owner and supposed responsible adult Jessica Rene Tata when the fire broke out? JTata, age 22, was seen on local television walking around the scene during the rescue of the children. A neighbor reported that Tata was not at home when the fire broke out, and several neighbors reported seeing Jessica arriving home with bags of groceries  after the fire started. Neighbors' accounts, later corroborated with in-store video footage, proves that Tata had left the children alone during nap time to go grocery shopping at Target.

Alone? What was she smoking? Who in their right mind would leave a house full of young, sleeping children alone to go shopping? No one seems to know exactly how long she was gone, but store security cameras show she was inside Target for at least 13 minutes.  Apparently, it was long enough for a pan of oil left on a hot burner on the stove to catch fire.  By the time Tata returned home, smoke had engulfed her home and was billowing out of the windows.

After the fire was extinguished, Tata refused to talk to the police, referring them to her attorney. Shortly after, Tata fled Houston. She got on an airplane for Nigeria before the district attorney’s office could file charges against her. Some were very upset that the district attorney's office was slow in getting her charged, arrested and into police custody. 

Jessica Tata remained in Nigeria until yesterday, March 22. Apparently, some family members who live there and other people in Houston helped the U.S. Marshals Service, Interpol, and Nigerian officials track her down and bring her back to Texas to face the 14n state criminal charges that have been filed against her. The charges include manslaughter, six charges of reckless injury to a child, three charges of abandoning a child under age 15, and a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. She has a lot of defending to do, that’s for sure.

Jackie's Child Care Center was a registered daycare home with the Texas Department of Family Protective Services. A registered daycare is the least regulated type of facility. Generally, home daycare facilities are less expensive than larger, more popular facilities, and, therefore, cater more toward families who cannot afford $900-plus per month in child-care costs. But you would think parents would at least look at the home daycare facility, ask questions about training, listen to the classroom for interaction, count the number of children versus caregivers, and be informed by checking licensing information. This is just basic stuff. 

Jackie’s Child Care was been inspected twice over the past three years by the Texas Department of Family Protective Services. Two violations were found last year: The facility was missing required carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers. Reports show that these issues were fixed immediately after being reported. However, faulty equipment was not to blame in this tragedy. Had a responsible adult been present at the home when the fire started, it is more likely than not that all of the children could have been saved before the fire got out of control.

Unfortunately, Texas laws do not help the parents very much. For instance, to run a  registered child care center, you must have a GED or a high school education, be CPR certified, pass a background check, and attend 20 hours of training to be in charge of a classroom of children. To have someone paint my fingernails, they have to have 600 hours of training. For someone to cut my hair, they must have 1,200 hours of training. Yet, to take care of our precious children requires only 20 hours. 

Minimum standards set forth by the Texas Department of Family Protective Services say that Jackie's Child Care was authorized to have up to six children in her facility full time, with the allowance of six additional children for after-school care only. These same regulation standards maintain that registered child-care facilities are only inspected once every two years, unless reports of neglect or abuse are made. Who would leave their babies with a 22-year-old woman who could legally watch up to 12 children at one time? Not to mention that this fire started during school hours, meaning that Tata should have had  only six children in her care to be in compliance with state regulations.

As a result of this disaster and tragedy, the Houston City Council is working to pass a new city ordinance requiring all home-based daycare operators to register with the city and submit to a safety inspection every year. If this ordinance is passed, home-based daycare operators would be required to pay $100 plus a $25 administration fee for the annual inspection which would be performed by the Houston Fire Marshals office. The state license held by Jessica Tata cost $37.

Although this change is small, at least it’s a start. Despite the obvious need for better regulation of home child care facilities, I know that most of these facilities take very good care  of their children, and that events like this are rare. The best way to prevent a tragedy like this is to be completely informed about the people to whom we entrust our children, and that is ultimately the job of parents. No amount of state regulation will do more than parents being actively involved in their children's daycare by visiting often, popping in unannounced, and maintaining constant communication with daycare providers. Pay attention. Ask questions. Ignorance is not bliss when your child's health, safety, and well-being are concerned.

1 comment:

DrGina said...

Horrific story. I recommend the book Protecting the Gift, by Gavin de Becker. It provides helpful parental guidelines for choosing a safe caregiver for children.