A recent article in the Oregonian detailed the unfolding story of a four-month-old baby who died at an illegal day care center in Hood River and the disturbing degree of information the state had about it in the months leading up to the tragedy.
The newspaper reports that the baby boy was the youngest of ten children being cared for at the facility. Its owners had their license revoked last year after it emerged that they “gave children ‘little white pills’ of melatonin so that they would sleep during nap times according to court documents.” But after being shut down in 2017 the three owners “soon opened the business back up, this time with a different name.”
All three women have now “been indicted on charges of second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and first-degree criminal mistreatment,” according to the paper. Yet that fact does not make the disturbing questions surrounding this case go away. In the wake of the scandal surrounding Southeast Portland’s Sunnyside Sprouts daycare the state was supposed to have put in place better policies. These were designed to address the question of child care providers moving from one jurisdiction to another in an effort to conceal disciplinary action or the suspension of licenses. They were also designed to make it easier for parents to find out about worrying regulatory or licensing issues. The case of Mama Shell’s Daycare (which became “Mama Bear’s”) in Hood River clearly indicates that these new rules are not being implemented in the way most of us thought they would be.
In the weeks and months to come we should all pay close attention to the progress of the criminal case against the three Hood River daycare owners. But this is also a good moment to ask both lawmakers and officials in the executive branch whether they are doing enough to implement the laws Oregon already has in place that are supposed to protect children and to keep parents properly informed. It is also worth asking whether there are any civil (as opposed to criminal) remedies which the parents of the deceased baby or of the other children who were placed in Mama Shell/Mama Bear’s care should pursue.
Child negligence is a serious offense under both the civil and criminal codes here in Oregon. In addition, a case can certainly be made that the practice of drugging children to get them to take naps meets the legal definition of child abuse. Additionally, the families involved should consider bringing a case under Oregon’s laws regarding abuse of vulnerable persons (ORS 124.105). We often view these statutes as focused on preventing mistreatment of the elderly or disabled, but a careful look at the state’s definitions in the statute makes clear that they apply to children as well.
As an Oregon lawyer with a practice specializing in injuries to children these are issues that I hope the families involved will examine carefully. The laws on our books are good and are getting better, but that does little good if they are not implemented properly and efficiently. The emerging details of this case certainly paint the picture of a system that failed on several levels. We need to pursue justice for the affected families even as we also push our elected representatives to ensure that safeguards are in place to prevent something like this from ever happening again.
ORS 163.545: Child Neglect in the Second Degree