One kilogram of fentanyl was found near mats that children used to nap at a Bronx daycare where a toddler died and three other children were hospitalized last week, police said Monday night.
Chief Joseph Kenny, chief of detectives for the Police Department, explained how close the powerful narcotic was to the children: “It was placed under a rug where the children had been sleeping earlier,” he said at a news conference, where joined the mayor. Eric Adams and other city officials.
The disturbing revelation came as Adams and the city’s health commissioner defended oversight of the administration of the day-care program, one of thousands of such operations in New York City that are licensed to operate from children’s homes. people.
City inspectors, who examine homes on behalf of the state, had made a “surprise” visit to the daycare where the boy died, Divino Niño on Morris Avenue, on Sept. 6. They found it was in full compliance with a 40-point checklist and noted that “all medications and toxic substances” were “being used and stored in a manner that no hazard was created” and that “poisonous, toxic, flammable and dangerous items They are inaccessible to children.”
Dr. Ashwin Vasan, health commissioner, said at the news conference that inspectors had followed their usual routine to ensure there were no risks to children in the apartment that housed the program.
Searching for a potent synthetic opioid was not common practice, he said.
“I’m very sorry, but one of the things my child care inspectors are not trained to do is look for fentanyl,” Dr. Vasan said. “But maybe we need to start.”
Mr. Adams demurred when a reporter asked him what he would say to reassure worried parents who might wonder if something had been “overlooked” to allow drugs into the nursery.
“This did not go unnoticed,” the mayor said. “The team did their job.”
Emergency medical workers were called to the scene Friday afternoon after three of the children showed unusual lethargy when they were awakened from their naps. The fourth child had left before nap time, police said.
Rescuers administered Narcan, the overdose reversal medication, to the three children in the apartment and then took them to a hospital.
Two of the children, a 2-year-old boy and an 8-month-old girl, regained consciousness and were “doing well” on Monday, Chief Kenny said. The fourth child, a 2-year-old boy, was taken to a separate hospital. He also received Narcan and was also “doing well,” Chief Kenny said.
The third child, Nicholas Dominici, was pronounced dead at the hospital. He would have turned 2 years old in November. As of Monday, the city medical examiner had not revealed his cause of death, but Chief Kenny said medical tests showed the other three children had fentanyl in their systems.
On Monday, Nicolás’s father, Otoniel Feliz, 32, described it as “horrible that drugs were found in a place where children are served.”
“How does it make sense for you to mix narcotics with children?” he said.
Authorities had previously said they found the kilogram of fentanyl in a hallway closet, along with a pair of kilogram presses used by drug traffickers to package large quantities of drugs.
Another press was found in the bedroom of a tenant, Carlisto Acevedo Brito, 41, who rented the room to the daycare owner, Grei Méndez, 36. Mr. Brito and Ms. Méndez have been charged with murder for showing “depraved indifference” to Nicolás’s death.
Ms. Mendez and Mr. Brito were arraigned Sunday night in Bronx Criminal Court. Mendez’s attorney, Andrés Aranda, said at his arraignment that there was no indication that Mendez knew anything about drugs. Efforts to contact Brito’s attorney on Monday were unsuccessful.
Chief Kenny said Mr. Brito had arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic about a year ago; that police were looking for a “person of interest” in the case; and that security video footage appeared to show some items being removed from the daycare site after the 911 call was made. Investigators were also working with federal authorities to determine whether Divino Niño had been opened as a front for a drug operation, he said.
Divino Niño, which was licensed by the state in May to care for up to eight children at a time, fell into a category of daycare programs typically run out of apartments, often by working-class residents to serve working-class families.
According to a recent New School study, there are more than 7,000 such programs serving more than 86,000 children throughout the city. The death at Divino Niño has raised questions about how well such operations are being regulated.
“How did this happen? What are our protocols? said Councilwoman Pierina Ana Sánchez, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood where the death occurred. “Is it protocol to check, you know, every room in a house?”
Dr. Vasan insisted that what happened at Divino Niño did not suggest a broader problem and said the health department inspected “hundreds, if not thousands, of these sites every year to check their safety.”
The inspection system, he added, “has been very useful to us because we keep our babies safe in thousands of these centers.”
Those who apply to operate a home daycare program must undergo a background check, just like any other resident of the home. It was unclear whether Mr. Brito’s background had been checked. Neither he nor Ms. Mendez had any arrest records, Chief Kenny said.
The city inspection noted that Divino Niño employees and volunteers had completed federal health and safety training.
Jeffrey Chartier, an attorney for Nicholas’ family, said Monday that the family had looked into the daycare program through a community center and was unaware that its operator also rented rooms to tenants.
The state Office of Children and Family Services, which licenses home day care programs, said in a statement it would not comment because the incident remained under investigation, but Adams defended city inspectors on Monday.
“They did all the proper inspections that are supposed to be done,” he said, blaming “the people who are there to protect the children.”
“The inspectors didn’t go in and see a drug lab and ignore it,” he added.
Sanchez said the daycare tragedy had drawn attention to “so many different challenges that the Bronx has,” including the shortage of affordable childcare and the deadly scourge of drugs.
Opioids like fentanyl caused approximately 75,000 overdose deaths nationwide last year. According to New York City data, there were 2,668 fatal overdoses in the city in 2021, a record, with fentanyl being a factor in four out of every five drug deaths, with the highest rates occurring in the Bronx.
When last year’s overdose data is released soon, Dr. Vasan said, “we will once again reach a record peak.”
Divino Niño is located on a vibrant stretch of Morris Avenue in the North Bronx.
Christopher Lucero, 19, who lives on the same block, said the street is often noisy and full of people strolling on the sidewalk. The building that houses the program is known locally for drug dealers and fights out front, he said.
“You see people coming in and out of that place,” Lucero said. “Drugs are not something out of the ordinary here.”
On Monday, a rosary of red beads hung from a blue metal security door outside the apartment, which still had colorful signs welcoming families adorning one door. On the sidewalk, mourners had formed a small memorial with candles, children’s toys and a bouquet of white flowers.
A neighbor, Jenni Hilario, 28, said Sunday that the apartment’s occupants played loud music at night.
“A lot of people do that here,” he said. “But they had a daycare, and daycare starts early in the morning. So that didn’t give me confidence, that they stayed out so late.”
She added that she had considered sending her young children to Divino Niño due to its affordability, but questioned why she was not given information about their safety policies.
“I didn’t have confidence in them,” he said.
The report was contributed by Sharon Otterman, Ana Ley, Eliza Shapiro, claire fahy, Kate Pastorand Christopher Maag.