Annual day care inspections ordinance proposed

March 24, 2011 3:18:03 PM PDT
For weeks, we've been closely following new developments involving a heartbreaking fire that killed four children at a west Houston home day care. Now city leaders are taking a closer look at who checks up on these home day cares and they say more needs to be done. City leaders have put this proposed ordinance on the fast-track in the wake of last month's deadly fire at Jessica Tata's day care.

Home day cares are regulated by the state and checked on once every other year. Now the city of Houston wants to put its stamp on these day care regulations.

The proposal stems from the incident in west Houston where day care owner Jessica Tata allegedly left seven infants at the home day care alone while she reportedly went shopping. A fire erupted, killing four toddlers and injuring three others.

Melinda Tibbs, who has operated her licensed home day care for more than 13 years, says she's shaken over the Tata story.

"That just broke my heart because how could a provider leave seven children and go shopping," Tibbs said.

As required under her license, Tibbs always has a second teacher on premises. And even though she's already inspected by the state every two years, city council members are close to adding another layer of scrutiny.

"It's the one thing we could do, and we should do something," Councilwoman Sue Lovell said.

Under the proposed ordinance, there would be yearly inspections of the more than 1,000 home-based day cares in Houston; the inspection would be conducted by the current staff of 102 fire inspectors.

"Are they going to be able to handle the load?" we asked Richard Galvan, a Houston fire marshal.

"They are; we are committed to doing this, for the sake of the kids," Galvan replied.

"You have to check your smoke detector," Tibbs said.

Inspectors would look for things like smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and other requirements set by the states. Day care providers will be charged $125 for the inspection, and if violations are found, the provider will have 30 days to correct them before inspectors return to check on them. It also provides penalties up to $2,000 a day for violations, which also would be reported to the state.

"If there is anything that we can do to make these homes safer, that is our goal," said Lovell. "This won't make them totally safe but it is a step in making them safer and on an annual basis at least having somebody come through and have an inspection of the homes."

Tibbs says she's willing to do it if simply to give her children's parents peace of mind.

"If they have to pass it, OK but I just don't want them to think what it happened with Tata to give us a bad name," Tibbs said.

City council is expected to vote on the ordinance in the next couple of weeks. If it passes, it goes into effect immediately, but everyone admits that the really big changes need to happen at the state level.