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After 18 deaths, state human services dept. reviewing protocol of unlicensed, illegal day cares

The move comes after acknowledging at least 18 deaths from 2010 through 2019.

DENVER — The Colorado Department of Human Services (DHS) announced late Tuesday an internal review of the way it addresses unlicensed day cares that are operating illegally – the subject of a 9Wants to Know investigation in February focused on the deaths of two small children at homes the state repeatedly tried, and failed, to close.

The move was made public just hours after the department was notified that 9NEWS was going to report that over the past decade, no one had been charged with a crime or was fined for operating an unlicensed day care outside the law.

Despite cases like the two featured in 9Wants to Know’s recent report, unlicensed in-home day care providers repeatedly found to be violating the strict limits on the number of children they could watch.

In each home, a child died under mysterious circumstances.

RELATED: Unlicensed Colorado day care had been warned to stop operating 6 years before death of infant

RELATED: Fort Morgan day care where 1-year-old died had been given 14 cease and desist orders, DHS says

And they weren’t alone – DHS confirmed to 9Wants to Know that at least 18 children died in unlicensed, in-home day cares from 2010 through 2019.

Numbers for 2020 are not yet available.

Madlynn Ruble, a department spokeswoman, said the department first started looking at deaths at unlicensed day cares operating illegally last October.

That work was broadened into a review of “our process concerning unlicensed, illegal child care, and how we address these situations in the future under the current legal parameters,” Ruble said in an email.

The review is tentatively expected to be completed by July 1.

In addition to that review, Ruble said a task force would make recommendations aimed at preventing “tragedies like this.”

At the same time, state Sen. Jessica Danielson wants to introduce legislation that would require DHS to post online documents showing when unlicensed day cares are the subject of complaints, investigations or are ordered to close.

“At the very least for these unlicensed child care facilities and providers, if they have done something terrible and the state knows about it, we need to create a system where parents can easily access that information,” said Danielson, a Democrat from Jefferson County.

She has requested permission to introduce the bill – necessary because she’s already reached her limit for the session.

Michelle Barnes, the executive director of DHS, declined a request for an on-camera, citing ongoing investigations into recent deaths.

Operating a day care without a license is legal in Colorado as long as the provider doesn’t exceed restrictions imposed by state law:

  • There can be no more than four children who aren’t related – with no more than two of them being under age 2;
  • Or there can be only the provider’s own children, kids from one other family who are siblings, or a combination of both.

In two cases where children died highlighted in the 9Wants to Know report, the day care providers had both been repeatedly ordered to shut down after they were found to be exceeding those limits.

In Morgan County, Teresa Beechley had been served with more than a dozen orders to stop providing illegal child care. Ben Pacheco, 20 months, died in her home in January 2019.

Beechley faced no charges in the incident.

>> Watch Ben's story below

In Douglas County, Amanda Anderson had been ordered to stop providing illegal child care four times before 3-month-old Elle Matthews died in her home last August.

Anderson faces felony counts of child abuse – knowingly or recklessly causing death, and tax evasion.

>> Watch Elle's story below

When DHS catches someone providing illegal, unlicensed child care, as it did with Beechley and Anderson, it orders them to shut down, serving written notice that they could face tougher penalties if they continue.

But a 9Wants to Know investigation found that two of the biggest threats – being charged with a crime or being fined up to $10,000 – haven’t been followed through on in a single case in the state in at least a decade.

Since Jan. 1, 2011, not a single criminal charge was filed in the state for operating an unlicensed day care outside the law, according to data obtained from the Colorado Judicial Department.

And over that same period, DHS did not fine a single person found to be providing illegal unlicensed care – a power it has under state law.

At the same time, even figuring out the scope of the issue is difficult. As a matter of course, DHS does not make documentation of complaints, investigations or shut-down orders involving unlicensed day cares. And when 9Wants to Know requested a decade’s worth of those documents, the state said it would take 990 hours of staff time and cost 9NEWS $29,700 to provide them.

“No family can bear that burden – even if they knew how to go about obtaining the documents,” said Danielson, the state senator.

She pointed out that the state already posts records outlining complaints and discipline for licensed day care providers. Now she wants the same thing done for unlicensed providers operating outside the law.

“Any parent should be able to see this kind of information publicly without a heavy cost burden or a lot of time spent digging it up,” Danielson said.

Contact 9Wants to Know investigator Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: kevin.vaughan@9news.com or 303-871-1862.

Share your story

Have an experience with an unlicensed day care you’d like to share? Contact 9Wants to Know by e-mail at blowthewhistle@9news.com or by text at 303-871-1491.

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