RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The parents of 1-year-old Joseph Allen thought they had found a safe place to leave him during the day while they worked. In reality, the home day care was being operated illegally.
The toddler died after a fire broke out at the home in Midlothian, west of Richmond, in 2014 when the woman who ran it disposed of smoldering ashes in her garage. Firefighters found the boy strapped in an overturned car seat when they searched the home, which had no working fire detectors.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a bill this week that would make it a felony — punishable with up to 10 years in prison — if a child is hurt or killed in a day care that is not properly licensed.
Joseph Allen's family hopes a new law will help prevent future tragedies.
"We did this to prevent other children from suffering, other families from going through what we went through," said Joseph's grandfather, Herman Allen, who along with his wife, LuAnn, furiously lobbied lawmakers to approve the bill.
The woman who ran the home was charged with a misdemeanor for operating a day care without a license. She was sentenced last year to 8 months in jail. No one answered at a number listed for the woman who operated the Midlothian day care.
Current law limits prosecutors from seeking harsher punishments in such cases unless they can show a reckless disregard for human life to bring involuntary manslaughter charges, which is difficult to do, Lynchburg Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Doucette said.
Doucette pushed for the bill alongside Allen's family after prosecuting another blaze at an illegally operated day care in Lynchburg that left two children dead. The woman who ran that day care accepted a plea agreement and didn't serve any jail time.
"We're not trying to shut anyone down," Doucette said. "We're not trying to put any onerous burdens on anybody. We're just trying to save children."
Child advocates estimate that at least 40 percent of Virginia kids are cared for in unregulated arrangements, where there have been far more deaths than in regulated settings. More than 50 children died in unregulated homes between 2004 and 2014, compared to 18 in facilities that are regulated, according to a Washington Post investigation two years ago.
Virginia currently allows home day cares to remain unlicensed if they watch fewer than six children, not including their own. That means they don't have to undergo checks to ensure they have working smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and an emergency evacuation plan, among other things.
Starting in July, the threshold will be lowered to five children, but Virginia's law remains weaker than other states, advocates say. Eleven states require providers to be licensed if they regularly care for one child not related to them, according to Child Care Aware of Virginia.
Thirteen other states mandate licenses when three or more unrelated kids are being watched, the group says.
The Allen family says the woman who operated their son's day care told them that she cared for only five children and therefore didn't need a license. On the day of the fire, she was watching eight children, authorities have said.
Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-richer .