The Oregonian reports that state officials are moving to close the a Portland day care center after a child died at the facility. What makes this incident particularly distressing is the news that this is the second Oregon child death at the center in 18 months.
The newspaper reports that police have not disclosed the circumstances of the fatality, and that the medical examiner is still conducting an investigation. The paper adds, however, that “state regulators immediately suspended all childcare at the facility… concluding that circumstances there presented ‘a serious danger.’”
The paper notes that “Oregon has recorded eight deaths at licensed day cares since 2007, according to the Office of Child Care. With more than 4000 facilities in the state, there have never been two deaths at the same location, the child care office said.” The newspaper quotes an official from the office describing the situation as “unprecedented.”
It is important for both the families directly effected by this tragedy and for others who may have children at the facility to understand that legal responsibility for this tragedy will not end once the authorities decide whether or not criminal charges are in order. Even if they decided against that, the legal standard for a civil Oregon wrongful death case differs in key ways from the standard applied to criminal cases.
There are also broader issues of child abuse and negligence that will surely need to be addressed. Simply leaving children under the age of 10 unattended can incur a charge of Second Degree Oregon Child Neglect. The victim in this case was a 10-month-old boy, and the earlier victim, who died in April of last year, was also an infant: a 7-month-old boy. Were they, and presumably other children with them, were left unattended for periods of time? Even putting the law aside this is simply not a good practice in a day care center caring for infants. It will be essential for investigators to ask whether there was a pattern of leaving infants unattended. If that was, indeed, the case then Oregon’s Chapter 124 laws governing physical abuse could come into play. I have written about these in the past in reference to elder abuse. While it is true that some aspects of Chapter 124 focus specifically on persons over age 65, others speak more broadly of criminal mistreatment and reckless endangerment of vulnerable persons generally.
It is also worth looking carefully at what the caregiver-to-child ratio was for babies cared for in the facility. In asking these questions, investigators will need to focus on management and ownership as well as the individual caregivers, asking whether they were being asked to look after too many children, or put on a schedule that made proper care of those children difficult if not impossible? This, in turn, prompts a reminder that the individuals, management and ownership may all have legal questions to answer even to the parents of children who suffered no injury. Neglect, as a matter of law, is not determined solely by whether or not a child suffers physical harm.
As a Portland attorney who has handled many cases involving injuries to children I urge state and local authorities to be especially diligent in their pursuit of the truth of this case. The families of the victims, as well as the families of every other child who has been cared for in the facility deserve no less.
AP via Fox News: Oregon Day Care Center Shuttered After 2nd Death in 2 Years
Oregon Department of Human Services: Child Abuse & Neglect
ORS 30.020: Action for Wrongful Death