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Health Dept. Creates Unit to Probe Illegal Day Care Centers After Baby Dies

 A police officer seen outside 69 Greene St., where a 3-month-old boy died.
A police officer seen outside 69 Greene St., where a 3-month-old boy died.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

SOHO — The Department of Health has created a unit to investigate child safety issues after a 3-month-old boy died at an unlicensed day care, the agency told to ABC 7 Eyewitness News.

Karl Towndrow died last week at SoHo Child Care, an unlicensed day care center run by Maryellen Strautmanis out of her loft at 69 Greene St. for 14 years. The Department of Health received a complaint about the center in November 2014, but an investigator failed to find the center and closed the case. 

"There are concerns about how rigorous the inspection process is, and what kind of oversight the Department of Health has over its own personnel," a law enforcement source said.

"What this tragedy signals is that you can operate off the radar without any authority going to come in and find you, even after a specific allegation is made."

Sources said the Department of Investigation and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office began looking into the actions of the DOH investigator last week to see if he actually followed through with agency protocols.

If he followed all the protocols and still failed to find the center, sources said, the DOI may recommend the Health department adopt more stringent protocols.

The Department of Health told ABC 7 on Friday that they are forming a new five-person unit specifically to investigate complaints about child safety, including day care centers. It is not clear when this team is expected to be up and running.

The Health Department did not return calls seeking comment from DNAinfo New York.

Under the current system, different day cares in New York City are regulated by two different agencies, the state's Office of Children and Family Services and the city's Department of Health.

The Office of Children and Family Services is responsible for licensing all home-based day cares in New York City and around the state, while the Department of Health is responsible for issuing permits to all day cares that are operated with more than 16 children or are operating outside a home.

But the Health Department is tasked with inspecting all day cares in New York City, including those that are licensed by the state.

The agency declined to release data about how many licensed and/or permitted day care centers are operating in the city, despite multiple inquiries by DNAinfo New York over the past week.

A DOH spokesman did say on Monday that the department had received 455 complaints about unlicensed day cares since 2013: 192 in 2013, 186 in 2014, and 77 so far this year.

They have substantiated 123 of those complaints since 2013, shuttering 57 day cares in 2013, 49 in 2014, and 17 so far this year.

The closure numbers were first reported by Eyewitness News. The news program said DOH gave them the information late Friday evening, after not answering questions for several days.

Sources said they see cause for concern if the current DOH system could allow Strautmanis's SoHo Child Care Inc. to slip through the cracks even after a tipster called in a complaint in November 2014 about it operating illegally.

The child care, which has since been orded to cease operations, had a high-profile online presence, including glowing reviews on Yelp, as well as an article in the New York Times.

"It is not like this day care center was underground," a law enforcement official said. "What then is wrong with the rules and inspection process that are in place?

"That is what concerns us. We are talking about the lives of infants and children."