SOHO — The municipal union representing city day care inspectors had warned the Health Department on several occasions over the past few years that its inspector staff was too small to regulate all of the day care facilities in the five boroughs, DNAinfo New York has learned.
The city Health Department currently has 78 inspectors who regulate the 11,300 licensed day care facilities. A senior union official told DNAinfo that the union District Council 37 had urged the Health Department to increase the number of inspectors because its members were stretched too thin.
"The shortage of child care inspectors relative to the large number of day care programs that exist in the city is an important issue that the union has raised several times over the years with the Department of Health," the union official said. The union official said the staffing shortage still exists.
The revelation comes a week after 3-month-old Karl Towndrow died at an unlicensed day care facility in SoHo. Towndrow went into cardiac arrest on his first day at SoHo Child Care, a facility run out of the loft apartment of Maryellen Strautmanis for the past 14 years.
The Health Department said in a statement that it has been taking steps to improve its inspection efforts.
Between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2015, the Health Department hired 26 new day care inspectors, bringing the number of field inspectors to 78. It also plans to hire three more field inspectors in the next year. In addition 21 supervisors oversee the field inspectors.
The agency said it has also created a centralized unit that will address allegations of serious child-safety threats, including unlicensed facilities. The department says it will hire an additional five inspectors to staff this unit.
The Health Department received a complaint about Strautmanis's facility months before Towndrow's death.
A Health Department inspector visited the location but could not gain entry. The inspector also spoke to tenants in the building's ground floor who said they were unaware of a daycare center operating in the building. He closed the investigation after the visit after being unable to corroborate the allegations.
The Health Department said the inspector followed agency guidelines. However, both the city Department of Investigation and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office are looking into whether the inspector actually followed protocol.
The Office of Children and Family Services licenses all home-based day cares in in the city and the state. The city Health Department licenses day cares with more than 16 children or that operate outside a home.
However, Health Department inspectors are charged with safety and health inspections for all day care facilities in the city.