City fails to inspect home day cares as promised

Victims families 'disgusted', 'saddened' by City's inaction

HOUSTON - Local 2 Investigates has uncovered the City of Houston is failing on it's promise to inspect all home day cares for fire safety.

A Local 2 investigation shows the Houston Fire Department has only inspected a fraction of the hundreds of home day cares across Houston, despite an ordinance authorizing those inspections.

The city's promise came after a devastating fire in February, 2011, that killed four young children at a home day care owned by Jessica Tata.

Tata had left the children home alone while she went shopping.

"The inspections were going to be done, plain and simple," said Jodie Brown, grandmother of fire victim Elias Castillo. "I was definitely hoping something good was going to come out of it. I'm disgusted. I'm very upset."

Castillo was just 16 months old when he died in the blaze.

Two months after the tragedy, Brown fought through tears speaking at a Houston City Council meeting. "Nothing I say today will bring back my grandson," she said in the April, 2011, meeting.

Brown spoke to support the then-proposed city ordinance authorizing annual fire inspections at all home day cares. At the time, fire inspections were not required for home day cares in Houston or throughout the state.

Former Council Member Sue Lovell spearheaded the law in 2011. She said the goal was to make Houston's home day cares safer.

"We thought there was some urgency in having at least someone come in and take a look at home day cares," Lovell told Local 2 Investigates. "This was written for the home day cares to register. Then, on a yearly basis, the fire department would go in and do an annual inspection."

City Council passed the law in June, 2011. The Houston Fire Department agreed to do the inspections every year, but almost two years later, Local 2 Investigates has uncovered that hundreds, maybe even more than 1,000, home day cares have yet to receive a single fire inspection.

When Local 2 Investigator Joel Eisenbaum asked Houston Fire Marshal Richard Galvan how many they've actually inspected, Galvan said they've only done 71.

"That doesn't seem like a lot," Eisenbaum said.

"It doesn't," said Galvan. "The problem is we had a problem with the initial letter that we had sent out."

Galvan says HFD initially sent out letters to 200 home day cares explaining that owners had to sign up for a fire inspection. Galvan says only 20% of the owners responded. Many day care homes complained about the letter's confusion between state regulations and the new city law.

"Isn't it the responsibility of the fire department to get these inspections done?" Eisenbaum asked.

"It's actually the responsibility of that day care provider," said Galvan.

Galvan said because of all the confusion with the initial letter, HFD quit sending out additional letters to more home day cares.

Local 2 Investigates found more than 1,200 home day cares with Houston addresses are listed in the state's database of home day care providers.

Galvan said the city still doesn't know how many of those home day cares are actually in Houston's city limits.

Galvan said he estimates around 500 home day cares fall under the ordinance. Even then, with just 71 total inspections, that means hundreds of home day cares are missing the promised checks on basic fire safety.

"That's somewhere around 12 percent to 15 percent of total home day cares," Eisenbaum said.

"But that's more than zero," said Galvan. "It's better than zero percent."

"But the spirit behind the law is that we get everyone inspected," said Eisenbaum.

"We will get everyone inspected," Galvan said. "Even if it takes five years, we will get them all."

"I'm shocked," said Lovell. "Right now, the fire department should go to every single one of them."

Those who lost so much say they feel duped.

Brown said she believes the city's promise to make home day cares safer is simply not being kept.

"What happens if there's another day care fire and more babies pass away?" Brown said. "What are they going to say then? They don't want to say anything because they didn't do what they were supposed to do. I read that Houston wanted to put a stamp on regulations with day cares. Then, stand behind it. Do it."

HFD now says it will begin sending out new fire inspection letters to home day cares next week.

However, almost two years after the ordinance passed, Houston City Attorney David Feldman admits he still doesn't know how many home day cares are within the city limits.

The ordinance calls for a stiff penalty for any home day care owner that doesn't sign up for a fire inspection. The penalty is up to a $2,000 fine per day of violation.

So far, the city has not enforced a single fine on any home day care ignoring the law.

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