Daycare provider charged in deadly Chesterfield fire - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

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Daycare provider charged in deadly Chesterfield fire

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Daycare provider charged in deadly Chesterfield fire Daycare provider charged in deadly Chesterfield fire
CHESTERFIELD, VA (WWBT) - A Chesterfield daycare provider will face charges in the death of a 1-year-old in her care during a fire in October.

Police charged Laurie F. Underwood with operating a daycare without a license, which is a class one misdemeanor. In Virginia, a class one misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.

Joseph Allen was found in a second floor bedroom of Underwood's burning home on Valerie Court in Midlothian on October 21. He later died from his injuries.

Joseph was strapped into an overturned car seat when he was found by firefighters more than 25 minutes after crews arrived, according to the fire incident report. The documents also show the homeowner who was operating the day care was unable to give fire crews an accurate count of how many children were in her care, even after Joseph was rescued. The record also states the smoke detector did not alert occupants, though fire marshals have not given any indication as to whether they were functioning properly or not.

In an interview Wednesday, NBC12 Legal Analyst Steve Benjamin said prosecutors could file criminal charges if the evidence revealed gross negligence on the part of the daycare owner.

"A crime is committed... if the person who caused the death is is guilty of such recklessness, that it evidences a complete disregard for human life and safety," Benjamin said.

Fire officials have said the homeowner was distraught to discover Joseph was still inside. A woman whose child was also in that home defended the daycare operator, who has more than 20 years of experience watching children in her home. Underwood was reportedly distraught when she realized Joseph was still inside the burning house.

The daycare was not properly licensed, according to official records. While Chesterfield's Commissioner of Revenue confirmed the daycare provider had a business license, and records show a business name registration form for the daycare on file, daycares with six or more kids also need a conditional use permit and a license from the Department of Social Services. The home was not registered with either agency as county officials say is required.

Despite the death and lack of proper licensing, Virginia Department of Social Services will not be investigating this case. According to a Social Services spokesperson, there is no history of complaints made about the facility. The spokesperson went on to say the department will help police if it is contacted, but will not spearhead an investigation of its own.

According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, since 2004, 46 children have died in unlicensed daycares. Three of those children, including Joseph, died since September because of house fires. 

Current Virginia code states DSS can't police unlicensed daycares unless it receives a complaint from the public. There were no complaints on file for the daycare on Valerie Court. A daycare license costs just $15, but many don't get the license because they're worried about the cost that could come with bringing their home up to code.

The Commissioner of the Department of Social Services says changes will be proposed as a result of Joseph's death.

Underwood turned herself in on Wednesday and is set to appear in Chesterfield County General District Court on Jan. 6, 2015, at 8:30 a.m.

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