Jessica Tata: Legislature Acts to Help Increase Daycare Inspections

Blink once and you might have missed state rep Carol Alvarado's bill in the House Urban Affairs last week that offered at least one more stopgap measure to prevent the West Houston daycare fire that took the lives of four small children.

Former day care operator Jessica Tata, 22, faces a slew of charges, including four counts of felony murder, after an unattended fire swept through her home in late February, leaving four of seven children in her care dead. Tata, captured after fleeing to Nigeria, has pled not guilty. She remains booked in Harris County Jail.

Surveillance tape from a nearby Target indicated Tata left the seven children in her home unattended while she went out to shop for groceries.

Houston City Council can't outlaw negligence or outright stupidity among home day care providers, but it can raise the bar on safety inspections. Late last month, the council put on a fast-track an ordinance requiring registration and inspection for the city's home-based day care operators.

Councilmember Sue Lovell's proposal calls for annual inspections by the fire marshal. The new city inspections would be in addition to, and more stringent than, the requirements set out by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

The last link to the chain, requiring the city to relay that information to the Department of Family and Protective Services, comes with Alvarado's House Bill 3547, which inserts a single paragraph into the code that regulates providers of child care services.

"This is a great bill that was born out of tragic circumstances," city lobbyist Darrin Hall told the committee on Wednesday evening. "We want the clear permission to be able to conduct inspections, and if we find violations, that we have a legitimate complaint for the Department of Family and Protective Services."

On this, the Houston Professional Firefighters Association and the City of Houston could come together. HPFA's Jeff Caynon, in his testimony, said the bill was evidence that public sector unions could support the good of the community as well as the well-being of their own membership rolls.

Tata had only one inspection by the Department of Family and Protective Services, when she was registered in March 2010, and she had a fire extinguisher at that time. The state agency generally schedules home inspections every two years, and agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins confirmed no subsequent inspection had occurred.

Conversation in committee veered off inspections to a discussion of what were reasonable child-to-provider ratios for home care providers to maintain. Conservative Rep. David Simpson of Longview, the father of seven, said he found it difficult to imagine how a single home care provider could evacuate a home with a dozen children in tow, including up to four under 18 months of age.

"We really have to look at changing that, maybe next session," Simpson said. "That's just not right."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kimberly Reeves
Contact: Kimberly Reeves