A Parkville woman who is suspected of running an unlicensed family care center when a fire broke out Thursday, injuring six children, may be among the hundreds -- even thousands -- of unlicensed child care providers statewide, an enforcement headache for state regulators.
State officials say that licensing requirements -- including fire and safety inspections and limits on the number of infants -- are designed to avert such disasters. But officials acknowledge they have no accurate count of the state's unlicensed family day care operations.
"We investigate a few hundred a year, but I'm sure that's just the tip of the iceberg," said Linda M. Heisner, executive director of the state Child-Care Administration, which oversees the state's 12,000 registered family day care providers. "We have no tracking system" and respond only to complaints or reports of unregistered day care homes, she added.
Her comments came as the state issued a cease-and-desist order Friday against Diana Smith of the 8600 block of Hoerner Ave., who was caring for seven youngsters, including three 1-year-olds, when the fire began, according to police reports.
The six injured children were treated at local hospitals for injuries including burns and smoke inhalation and released. Investigators have said the fire was caused by a child playing with matches.
State registration "would diminish the odds" of fires such as the one at the Smith home, said Heisner.
"We require that every room have two exits, so that the only exit would not have been the stairwell. We require smoke detectors on every floor and a fire extinguisher, and we require four fire drills a year," she said.
Maryland law permits only two youngsters younger than 2 so an adult can carry them out in case of emergency.
Registered providers must have three hours of training that addresses situations such as keeping dangerous substances and objects away from children.
In the aftermath of the fire, state officials have ordered Smith to not provide day care in her home until she becomes licensed and have offered the families of the children assistance in finding licensed care.
Child care officials also said they would contact the parents of the children in the home at the time of the fire to ask for their help in determining if Smith was, indeed, operating a family day care center.
Providing unregistered day care is a misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $1,000 and civil penalties up to $5,000, Heisner said.
Smith and her husband, Melvin E. Smith, who were staying with a neighbor, declined to comment yesterday.
But Dave Weber, whose children, Taylor, 1, and Katie, 4, were treated for smoke inhalation after Thursday's fire and, according to Weber, had been in day care with Smith on and off for six months, voiced support for Smith even if she has no day care license.
"A piece of paper really means nothing to me," he said. "The quality of the care was excellent. Diane was great with the kids, and they always came home happy."
Kris Beach, who said her 1 1/2 -year-old nephew, Brandon Vocke, was a regular at Smith's house, also defended Smith.
"My sister and I have known the Smith family for years," she said. "We went to school with Mrs. Smith's sons, and we always trusted her. A piece of paper does not mean this would never have happened."
State officials, however, stress that people who regularly care for children in their home, other than their own youngsters or family members, must be registered as a family day care provider.
The registration process involves criminal background and medical checks, not only on the provider but also for any adult FTC living in the home.
Homes must pass fire and safety inspections and meet zoning regulations.
In addition, the provider must offer character references, an emergency escape plan and specify what areas of the home and yard will be used for child care.
"We do, in fact, scrutinize very closely," said Percy Alston, regional child care manager for Baltimore County.
Heisner said some day care providers do not register because they do not know they must. Others know and "choose not to, because it conflicts with the way they provide care," she said. "For some people, it may mean they will have to report income that they do not otherwise," and some object to the inspection and required background checks.
When child care officials find unlicensed day care homes, they can offer the operators "amnesty," allowing them to continue caring for children while they complete the registration process, which usually takes 30 to 60 days, Alston said.
The administration would not, however, offer amnesty to Mrs. Smith if she is found to have been operating an unlicensed center "because of the fire and the number of children injured," he said.
Pub Date: 4/13/97