Child's Death Exposes Flaws In State Child Care System

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The tragic death of a 17-month-old boy left unattended in a day care transportation van in Dorchester this week is prompting a review of state and city laws and policies meant to prevent such tragedies.

Gabriel Josh-Cazir Pierre (Courtesy, via BPD)
Gabriel Josh-Cazir Pierre (Courtesy, via BPD)

The state says the driver didn't follow certain rules, and the case has also brought to light deficiencies in day care licensing.

At 18 Floyd St. in Dorchester, teddy bears, plastic cars and candles mark the scene where 17-month-old Gabriel Josh-Cazir Pierre died. He'd been left for seven hours in a school transport van during Monday's hot weather.

The owner of the van company, Gloria Feliz, lives and runs a day care at the Floyd Street address. Her attorney, Isaac Peres, says she's overcome with sorrow.

"The entire family is traumatized. They're in a state of shock," Peres said.

Two miles away from Floyd Street, on Trinity Terrace, there's no answer at the home-based day care center where the driver was supposed to bring Gabriel.

The state agency that licenses day cares — the Department of Early Education and Care — says this one just opened in July.

Flaws In The Child Care System

According to a published interview with Gabriel's mother, the owner didn't call her to inquire about him not arriving that morning. And the school van driver, Luis Matos, who lives with Feliz, allegedly didn't check the vehicle to make sure it was empty before leaving it for the day. These are two of the weaknesses exposed by Gabriel's death in the system of state-licensed, home-based day cares and the transportation companies that service them.

"We are all beside ourselves with grief," said Wayne Ysaguirre, president and CEO of Associated Early Care and Education, a nonprofit that contracts with a network of day care centers and day care bus companies to serve 600 children in Boston.

The newly formed state panel is tasked with reviewing all policies to try to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

Associated's network includes the van company and both day care centers thrust into the spotlight after the tragic death this week.

Ysaguirre said one fairly quick response the organization is considering is requiring van services that contract with them to have a special buzzer system.

"There is an automatic buzzer that goes off in back of the van. It forces the person to walk to the back of the van to turn off the buzzer. It's a way to force the driver to check every seat to get to the back of the van," he said.

The van companies and drivers have to be licensed by the state's Registry of Motor Vehicles.

And the RMV already has a detailed safety policy in place, said Early Education and Care Commissioner Sherri Killins.

"That plan requires that attendance is taken when children get on a bus and attendance is taken when children get off transportation. Then finally, when the end of the route comes, the driver is supposed to go into the transportation and make sure all the children are removed. So clearly something failed," Killins said.

And it failed in the worst possible way.

State Policies On Day Care Centers

Killins said she can't speculate as to whether many other drivers may be failing to check their vans after their routes. But she is now involved with a special committee, assembled at the direction of Gov. Deval Patrick, to review the tragedy and recommend possible changes to the system.

"I mean clearly a child, a youngest citizen, was lost. A family is without their son. And we're going to look at every policy, procedure, to make sure there's nothing more we can do."

As far as notifying a parent when his or her child doesn't arrive at day care, the state currently requires such notification only on the third day of absence and only for kids who receive state day care subsidies. So Gabriel's day care provider didn't violate any laws or policies.

But Ysaguirre said his organization would probably support a requirement for day care operators to call on the first absence.

"You know, the parent would have to understand and agree, 'I'm going to get called every day if my child doesn't show up.' It's just not a mindset that exists in early childhood. But it's clearly something to consider," he said.

Meanwhile, there is the immediate case of Feliz and her home-based day care. Gabriel did not attend her day care. But after police responded to his death, city inspectors found a host of electrical and building code violations at the her home-based facility, as outlined at an Inspectional Services hearing Thursday.

Though licensed by the state to operate a day care in her home, Feliz never obtained the proper city permits to convert the basement into that day care.

The Inspectional Services Department upheld a condemnation order at the close of the hearing, where several mothers whose children Feliz watches came to support her.

"It sounded ominous, but they're very minor violations," said Feliz's attorney. "It's a very safe facility. Nobody felt unsafe. It was very clean.

"You probably go to any property and find violations like this. Just so happens she's under the glare of the spotlight because of the tragedy."

Feliz was licensed by the state to run a day care. So why didn't the state know she hadn't obtained proper permits and inspections from the city?

Boston's Assistant Inspectional Services Commissioner, Darryl Smith, said it's because the city and state don't cross-check such information.

"The state, for home day cares, that's what this is, and that's what they have a permit for, there's no requirement. Should that change? We have to sit down, as we are going to sit down with the state, to see how we can strengthen it," Smith said.

The newly formed state panel is tasked with reviewing all policies to try to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. It will present its recommendations on Oct. 11.

Earlier Coverage:

This program aired on September 16, 2011.

Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.



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