Elly Lafkin became an advocate for improving the system of background checks… (Norm Shafer/THE WASHINGTON…)
When the call came, it took Elly Lafkin a few minutes to realize that the voice sobbing incomprehensibly into the phone was her infant daughter’s babysitter. She was telling Lafkin to rush to Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg, Va.
By the time Lafkin arrived the morning of May 17, emergency medical workers had been giving her daughter CPR for 35 minutes. They’d shot epinephrine into her thigh four times and had tried again and again to restart her daughter’s heart, still no bigger than a walnut, with defibrillator paddles.
At the hospital, Lafkin pleaded with the doctors to not give up. “I screamed, ‘You can’t stop!’ ” she remembers. “ ‘You have to keep trying!’ ”
But at 12:27 p.m., they called Camden Lafkin’s death. She was 13 weeks and two days old.
The caregiver and Camden’s cause of death are under investigation, according to local Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst. Lafkin said she was told by investigators that marijuana and methamphetamines were found in the caregiver’s home. Lafkin has since paid for a thorough background search using the caregiver’s Social Security number and found five other names with a host of civil and criminal charges, including a felony charge for embezzlement. Court records show a number of violations on her five-year probation.
But before Camden’s death, there was no way for Lafkin to have known. In a state that is often reluctant to impose rules on small businesses, the caregiver was operating an unlicensed, unregulated, unmonitored and perfectly legal family day care.
Virginia is one of only eight states in the nation that allow family providers to care for up to six unrelated children, as well as any number of their own children, without a license. Providers are not required to pass background checks or get training on health, safety, safe sleeping practices or child development. No one inspects their sites for safety or quality.
The standards are so low that Alexandria and Fairfax and Arlington counties have imposed stricter rules of their own. All three jurisdictions require a license, permit or registration that includes background checks, fire-safety inspections and CPR and first-aid training.
But parents in the rest of the state are largely on their own.
“We trusted this lady with our child,” Lafkin said. “We didn’t realize that sending your child to an unlicensed, unregistered provider meant throwing her to the wolves.”
About 400,000 children in Virginia — half of all children under 12 estimated to be in child care — are in unregulated settings, said Sharon Veatch, executive director of Child Care Aware of Virginia, an advocacy organization.
“A lot of them are the younger ones, because there are really limited spaces for infants and toddlers,” Veatch said. “Unregulated care doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. But we just don’t know. And we don’t know where they are, so we can’t reach out to provide support and information on even simple things, like how to baby-proof your home.”
Day-care deaths in Virginia are rare. But three of the four children who died from suspected abuse or neglect while in day care in fiscal 2011 were in unregulated settings, according to the state Department of Social Services.
In 2012, two months before Camden’s death, 3-month-old Teagan Sample died in an unregulated day-care home in Prince William County. Twenty-three children were being cared for at Little Angels of the World by two women, who were charged with multiple counts of child endangerment.
Hundreds of cases of child abuse and neglect at unregulated day cares were referred by Child Protective Services to local investigators and prosecutors for further scrutiny in fiscal 2012, state records show.
Virginia law requires a background check of state police records and the child abuse registry for licensed caregivers only. Even so, it doesn’t require a federal fingerprint check nor a check of the sex offender registry before granting a license.
Because of what it calls Virginia’s “weak” standards, Child Care Aware of America has ranked the state at the bottom nationally for safety and quality of family day care.
Virginia also exempts any child-care centers or after-school programs operated by religious organizations, parks and recreation departments, public schools and even private karate clubs from meeting full child-care licensing standards, advocates said.
“In Virginia, we require someone who does your fingernails, cuts your hair or gives you a massage to go through hours of training, to supervise their experience and demonstrate their skills. They all have to be licensed. Yet we don’t require any of that for child-care providers, the people we are trusting our most valued possessions to,” Veatch said. “We require more from a dog groomer. That’s a tragedy.”
A search for affordable care