Day-care license is more than paper Parkville fire: Some parents do not appreciate how state review protects their children.

April 17, 1997

IMAGINE THE REACTION if a fire injured children in a public school where officials had not bothered to follow the fire code. Parents would be calling for heads to roll.

Yet some parents of the six children injured in a fire at Diana Smith's illegal Parkville family day care -- where Baltimore County fire officials found a long list of fire code violations -- feel authorities are being too harsh in citing the woman yesterday and making an issue of the fact that she was not licensed to care for children. A license, they scoffed, is just "a piece of paper." What should it matter, they said, as long as she is good with their children?

It matters a great deal. A license is more than paper. It is tangible proof that a person has met certain qualifications and/or agreed to meet certain obligations. Anyone who has a marriage license stashed in a lockbox knows that.

In the case of family day care, licensing requires providers to pass certain tests and adhere to certain rules vital to the protection of children. Among the most important are a criminal background check and an annual fire inspection. Local fire codes have special requirements for day care centers, everything from covering electrical outlets with safety caps to evacuation plans. The fire marshal's office says Ms. Smith did not meet many of these.

She had one faulty smoke detector in her three-story rowhouse, fire officials said. The code requires a functioning detector on every level. Had she been licensed, children would not have been allowed to play in her basement, which has no barrier around the furnace, paneling that is not fire-retardant and a blocked exit.

She was watching four children under the age of two, instead of two as required by law. This limitation is not arbitrary; in case of fire, an adult can only carry two infants or toddlers at a time.

Parents put their children at risk if they do not take safety measures as seriously as the demeanor of the provider. Yes, accidents can happen, even in licensed day cares. But the proper precautions can mean the difference between life and death.

In the early 1980s, three children died in a fire in an illegal day care in Hillendale. This blaze easily could have been just as tragic. And it would not have been an unavoidable accident, but a case of inexcusable negligence.

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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