Unlicensed, Unregulated Care Leads to Infant Deaths

In 2012, Elly Lafkin received the call every parent dreads – her infant daughter was in the hospital and unresponsive, the babysitter said, as she sobbed into the phone. Although the caregiver and the infant’s cause of death are currently under investigation, Lafkin was told that marijuana and methamphetamines were present in the caregiver’s home on that day.

Lafkin’s daughter, Camden, was 13 weeks and two days old. Since that day, Lafkin paid for a complete background search using the caregiver’s social security number. She discovered a wide range of criminal and civil charges, including felonies and violations of a five-year probation. Because of Virginia’s weak regulations, the caregiver was operating a completely legal family day care that was also unlicensed, unregulated, and unmonitored.

Virginia and eight other states allow anyone to set up a family care business for up to six children, not including any related children, without a license. They are not required to pass a background check or undergo any health or safety training. No inspections are ever performed.

The standards are so weak, in fact, that three counties – Alexandria, Fairfax, and Arlington – have adopted stricter rules independently. All three now require thorough background checks, a license, permit or registration, fire-safety inspections, and first-aid and CPR classes. About 400,000 children in the rest of the state, however, are being cared for in unregistered settings.

Two months before Camden’s death, a 3-month old child died in a similar unlicensed day care setting, Little Angels of the World, in Virginia. Upon investigation, it was found that 23 children were being cared for by two women who were later charged with child endangerment. According to Virginia’s State Department of Social Services, about three out of four children who die in Virginia under suspicions of abuse or neglect passed away in unlicensed settings.

Even for licensed caregivers, Virginia only requires a background check of state police and child abuse records; it does not require a check into federal fingerprint registers or, amazingly, the sex offender registry before granting a license. The state also exempts child care programs run by public schools, parks and recreations departments, and religious organizations from meeting these licensing standards.

Elly Lafkin’s maternity leave ran out when her daughter was eight weeks old. She and her husband lived in a rural town, far away from any family. There were only three licensed child care centers in the area, all of which were at least 35 miles away. They could not afford the $150-a-week cost of these centers along with the extensive daily commute, and neither of them could afford to stay at home with Camden.

Two friends recommended a local grandmother who had been caring for children in her home for more than a decade. She was unlicensed, but she lived close to where the husband worked, and she charged $85-a-week. The couple ran a state background check, and found only small traffic violations, and interviewed her twice. The woman assured them she never had more than four children in her care at any given time. On the day Camden died, she had six children in her home.

Since her death, the Lafkin’s have been committed to changing Virginia’s child care laws. They are asking for all care givers to be required to be trained in health, safety, and early development, be licensed, and be subject to background checks and regular inspections. In the neighboring Washington D.C. and Maryland, all caregivers who look after even one unrelated child are required to obtain a license before doing so.

In January 2013, Elly Lafkin met with Virginia Republican Senator Steve Martin, who is a chair on the education and health committee, and who is also running for lieutenant governor. Martin told Lafkin he does not believe legislators should change current child-care laws, saying he can’t place the same regulations on someone watching only a few children as those who operate larger care centers. He related the situation to attempting to license all individual parents.

Accident and injury lawyers commend the efforts of the Lafkin family and hope they make headway in their efforts to transform Virginia’s child-care standards. No child should suffer from the lack of state regulations regarding their care. If your child suffered serious injury from negligent care, you have important legal rights, and may be eligible for compensation.