Day care suspended after tot left in van for over 9 hours

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — A Kentucky day care center with a troubled history was forced to shut down Friday, a day after a toddler was left strapped in his car seat alone in a van for more than nine hours overnight.

The 3-year-old was not in distress when he was found about 2 a.m. Thursday in the parking lot outside Precious Jewels School of Excellence, Lexington police spokeswoman Brenna Angel said. She said paramedics examined the boy and released him to his family, and that police are investigating the 23-year-old woman who was driving the van and forgot to drop the child off. No criminal charges have been filed.

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services ordered the center to surrender its license and close immediately. In a letter addressed to owner Evelyn Johnson, the cabinet cited “probable cause to believe an immediate threat exists regarding the health, safety and welfare of children.”

Cabinet records show it has investigated 23 complaints about the center in the past four years, 17 of which led them to find the center out of compliance with state licensing regulations.

A woman who answered the phone at Precious Jewels on Friday refused to put the owner on the line, declined to comment and hung up.

The prior violations cited by the cabinet include leaving children unsupervised, a staff member yanking a toddler off the floor by his wrist, another grabbing and screaming at a misbehaving child, employees fighting and threatening each other, and others driving children around without seatbelts. The center failed to keep employee driving records or documentation to show its employees had met basic requirements, such as having a high-school diploma or completing CPR certification, according to the records.

In March, the cabinet discovered that the center had hired a van driver who was already on the state’s registry of people with substantiated histories of child neglect. Day cares are required to check the registry when hiring. That driver was fired immediately, according to the records.

Police have not named the driver involved in the incident this week.

Just before midnight Wednesday, the child’s mother called police to her apartment when she arrived home from work to say her son was not dropped off from his day care. She said the center was supposed to bring the child home about 5 p.m. and his 16-year-old sister was at the apartment waiting for him, Angel said.

The mother’s employer does not allow her to have a phone while at work. She checked it while on a break and discovered several missed calls from her daughter, who worried that the boy had not yet been dropped off by the day care, Angel said.

The family emigrated from Africa, speak little English and are unfamiliar with American customs and policing, Angel said. The woman called a family friend from work for help, and they told her not to worry and that the boy was likely with the police department, Angel said. When the woman got off work, she called the police and asked where to pick up her son.

Angel said the family is not under investigation for any wrongdoing.

The day care center had by then closed hours earlier, at 6 p.m. Police officers reached the owner of the day care who went to the center with her husband and found the boy still strapped into his car seat in the van parked in the lot outside, Angel said.

He is believed to have been in the van from about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday to 2 a.m. Thursday. The National Weather Service reports that the temperature in Lexington was 84 degrees at 4:30 p.m. It cooled down overnight to about 72 degrees at 2 a.m. He showed signs of dehydration when his mother took him to a doctor Friday.

In Louisville, a child died during a similar incident in April. An investigation by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services showed the owner of Lil Kings and Queens Learning Academy picked up 2-year-old Lavontae Swain, her great-nephew, at his home about 9:30 a.m. She forgot to deliver him to the center and the boy remained in the van for six hours as the temperature topped 80 degrees. She went to an elementary school about 3:45 p.m. to pick up other children, who discovered the boy unresponsive in the backseat. The coroner ruled that the child died from hyperthermia, an extremely elevated body temperature.

The owner, 70-year-old Jacquelin Thomas, was charged with manslaughter.

Angel said a detective in the police department’s Special Victims Unit is investigating whether criminal charges should be filed in the Lexington case.

Precious Jewels School of Excellence can appeal the suspension.

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