In late March 2017, Arkansas’ state legislature passed an act that stripped the state’s Early Childhood Committee of its powers to regulate child care facilities. On June 12, a child died after being left in a hot van for eight hours outside a daycare center owned by the bill’s only sponsor.
It was 90 degrees in West Memphis, Arkansas when emergency responders arrived at Ascent Child Health Services on June 12. But the outside temperature was nothing compared to the 141-degree heat inside the daycare provider’s van, where five-year-old Christopher Gardner, Jr. had been sitting for eight hours. Ascent employees told police they had picked him up for daycare with other children that morning, but failed to spot him in the back of the van when they arrived at the daycare center. Four of those employees now face manslaughter charges in Gardner’s death.
But legislative action aimed at combating similar tragedies is unlikely. Arkansas’s state assembly has recently moved away from such regulations, with a new act that removed the Arkansas Early Childhood Committee’s authority to regulate child care facilities, Little Rock’s KATV first reported. The bill’s lone sponsor was Arkansas Rep. Dan Sullivan, the CEO of Ascent Child Health Services.
Act 576, which passed in March, repealed the provisions in state code that allowed the Arkansas Early Childhood Committee to regulate child care centers. Under the legislation, a division of the state’s Department of Human Services will now independently promote rules for child care facilities, a move that sparked concern from some guardians who worried that standards would fall away with the old regulations.
The act is not the first such effort from Sullivan, who has argued that the child care industry is over-regulated. Last year, the state representative fought a requirement that would have mandated at least 50 percent of all employees at a child care facility receive first aid and CPR certification, KATV reported.
After Gardner’s death, Sullivan acknowledged that Ascent’s company policies should have prevented the child’s death.
“Our clinic director and I have been in contact with Christopher’s mother to express our deepest sympathy,” Sullivan said in a statement last week. “I also shared with the family that we know our staff did not follow company policies and procedures, and if they had, this tragedy would not have occurred.”
Sullivan, who did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Sunday, also offered to pay for Gardner’s funeral, though the child’s family declined. The family has hired an attorney, who faulted Ascent’s check-in policies in Gardner’s death.
“This company is paid per child that shows up at school so they're not overly concerned if the child got out of the van or not ’cause they're going to sign them in anyway," the attorney, Randall Fishman told West Memphis’s Action 5 News.
Gardner’s death was a preventable tragedy, authorities say.
“For me, going out there, it’s impossible to see how you would miss this child when he was sitting in the van if you did any kind of check at all,” Capt. Joe Baker of the West Memphis Police Department said during a Friday press conference. “There are no words to describe it. It’s a tragedy. But I think the biggest thing is it’s a tragedy that could have been prevented.”