The Investigators: Death of 3-month-old at unlicensed daycare puts spotlight on city, state procedures

Thursday, July 16, 2015
The Investigators: Spotlight on off-the-grid child care after death of baby
Jim Hoffer reports

LOWER MANHATTAN (WABC) -- The investigation continues Wednesday into the death of 3-month-old boy at an unlicensed daycare in SoHo, as authorities try to determine how the facility was in operation for more than a decade without proper certification and inspections.

Unlike the restaurant industry, where the health department both licenses and inspects locations, the state licenses daycare centers while the city inspects them. That led the Eyewitness News Investigators to two different websites and, at times, conflicting information and confusion.

Now, a City Councilman who oversees health issues says the dual-agency system needs to change.

For years, Maryellen Strautmanis operated SoHo Child Care in the shadows of safety regulators, until Monday, when Karl Towndrow went into cardiac arrest and died. Eyewitness News has since learned that last November, the city Department of Health received a complaint about an illegal daycare operating in the Greene Street building -- a complaint an inspector failed to confirm.

"The scary part of this tragedy this past week, wondering if there aren't dozens, perhaps hundreds of unlicensed childcare centers across the city," City Council member Corey Johnson said. "It seems like there's an underground network of these facilities, which are unlicensed, and health only finds out about them when there's a complaint brought to them."

The Department of Investigation says it is going to go beyond the narrow scope of whether the Department of Health dropped the ball when it received the complaint. They're also going to look at the entire process by which the city tries to find daycare centers operating unregulated and under the radar.

A spokesman for the the Department of Health says, "We respond to every complaint regarding alleged illegal child care programs within 24 hours, and if the complaint is substantiated, we close the program immediately."

A check of the health department's daycare website found that trying to determine whether a provider is licensed and therefore trained in CPR and other safety measures can be difficult. We found one daycare advertising on Craig's List, but when "Mia Rose" was plugged into the city website, the results claimed the facility did not exist. On the state website, the same daycare provider came up as fully licensed and had been for 15 years.

Johnson chairs the Health Committee and says it's time to end the divided oversight in which the state licenses daycares and the city inspects them.

"The Department of Health has to be in charge of licensing and inspecting these places," he said. "State has responsibility, but it's our city and our children."

Police say an employee fed Towndrow bottled breast milk provided by his mother and put him down for a nap, but then the boy's lips turned blue. Strautmanis called 911 and attempted CPR but seemed to be improperly trained, needing coaching from the dispatcher.

The boy was rushed in critical condition to Lenox Hill Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The cause and manner of death are pending further studies following an examination.

The health department says it is enhancing efforts to identify illegal child care facilities. Eyewitness News attempted to get some numbers on how many illegal operations have been shut down in the city, but the agency could not or did not provide that information.