‘Joseph’s Law’ takes effect

By Jim McConnell
Original article from Chesterfield Observer

By channeling their grief and anger into action, and changing Virginia law in the process, a Chesterfield family is trying to protect children and prevent future tragedies at day care facilities across the commonwealth.

“This law isn’t justice for Joseph, but we hope it helps other families,” said Jaci Allen, whose 13-month-old son died in a fire at the home of his unlicensed day care provider in October 2014.

Since then, the Allen family has worked tirelessly to stiffen penalties for day care providers that fail to comply with state licensure regulations.

Delegate Daun Sessoms Hester (DNorfolk) introduced a bill in the House of Delegates earlier this year and shepherded it through the legislative process.

Both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously approved the bill in March.

Jaci and Matthew Allen, and Matthew’s parents Herman and LuAnn, stood behind Gov. Terry McAuliffe last week as he signed “Joseph’s Law” during a ceremony at a Newport News elementary school.

Under the new law, which takes effect July 1, if a child dies or is seriously injured at an unlicensed day care, the operator can be charged with a Class 4 felony.

“We know this won’t bring Joseph back,” McAuliffe said, “but we also know we can prevent this from happening to other Virginia children.”

Over the past 10 years, more than 50 children have died in Virginia day care facilities that were unregulated by the state.

Joseph Allen was one of eight children – six of whom were 2 years old or younger – in the care of Laurie Underwood when fire broke out at Underwood’s Chesterfield home on the morning of Oct. 21, 2014.

Underwood got seven children out of the house safely, but in the chaos of a rushed evacuation, Joseph was left behind.

Firefighters later discovered Joseph strapped into an overturned infant carrier on the second floor. Joseph died from acute thermal inhalation.

The Allens were outraged after learning that the lone charge the Chesterfield Commonwealth’s Attorney intended to file against Underwood was a misdemeanor for operating an unlicensed day care facility.

They thought Underwood should have been charged with involuntary manslaughter. Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Duncan Minton, who led the investigation into Joseph’s death, maintained that state law didn’t support more serious charges.

At the time of the fire, Underwood’s home had no working smoke detectors or fire extinguishers. She also failed to prepare an emergency evacuation plan or compile a list of the children in her care.

All of those items would have been required in order for Underwood to obtain a state day care license.

Underwood pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in 2015 and was sentenced to 12 months in jail, with four months suspended.

Had she been convicted under “Joseph’s Law,” Underwood would have faced between two and 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.

Hester thanked the Allens – particularly Joseph’s grandparents, Herman and LuAnn – for coming to Richmond “day after day” to lobby and fight for “Joseph’s Law.”

Many of the Allens’ friends, family members and neighbors sent emails to their representatives in the General Assembly, asking them to pass the bill.

Two statewide advocacy groups – Child Care Aware of Virginia and Voices for Virginia’s Children – also lobbied in support of the legislation.

Jaci Allen acknowledged it was “exhausting” to tell their story to the different groups of lawmakers, “reliving the nightmare over and over.”

The alternative – doing nothing and risking the same thing happening to another child – was simply unacceptable.

Jaci and Matthew Allen’s daughter, Carolyn, is now seven months old. She has big eyes and chubby cheeks just like the older brother she will never get to meet.

Jaci, who is due with the couple’s third child in November, said that Carolyn “kept us going” and “lifted our heads” whenever she and Matthew were tempted to surrender to their grief.

“She brought us back,” Jaci added, “and gave us hope.”