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Child dies after choking accident at unlicensed Enfield day care

A 4-year-old girl who was choked accidentally by her own coat while at an unlicensed day care has died.

Willa Clark died late yesterday afternoon, her parents, Cara and Michael Clark of Enfield, said in a statement issued through Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Police Chief Richard Crate Jr. said his department is still investigating what he called “a tragic accident,” which took place shortly before 1 p.m. Monday.

Crate declined to release the name of the child care provider, but said he intends to do so in the next few days.

“We’re still looking at all aspects of what happened in consultation with our county attorney’s office,” Crate said.

“When somebody dies, we have to investigate that,” he said. “We’re looking at our laws to see what, if any, were violated.”

The girl’s coat became snagged on a lean-to made of branches, she was unable to free herself and her coat cut off her breathing, Crate said. The child-care provider, who was the lone adult on the premises, was with another child in the house, 75 to 100 yards away, and the other children outside with Willa were too small to help her, Crate said.

“She wasn’t able to see what was happening,” he said of the child-care provider.

The provider performed CPR on the child and called 911, and emergency personnel continued CPR when they arrived, Crate said. The girl was taken to Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

State officials said the home day care where Monday’s incident took place was out of compliance with state law.

State law allows a home-based program to operate under legal exemption from licensing only if all of the children in the home are related to the provider, or if there are no more than three unrelated children at the home in addition to the provider’s own biological or adopted children.

At the time of Monday’s incident, there were five children present at the child-care provider’s home, none of them related to the provider, Crate said. That means the center should have been licensed, but wasn’t, state officials said. It is not clear whether the provider had more children than allowed by law on a regular basis.

State child-care licensing officials also declined yesterday to provide identifying information about the day-care provider. The Child Care Licensing Unit plans to issue a “cease operating” letter to the provider, Clement said. The letter will give the provider 24 hours to come into compliance, which the state will attempt to enforce with an unannounced follow-up visit, Melissa Clement, chief of the state Child Care Licensing Unit, said.

Someone at the same address once had a licensed home day care that closed voluntarily several years ago, Clement said.

“What we are not sure of is if the provider that we licensed previously is the same person who’s currently in the home, because we do not have a name,” Clement said.

Home day-care providers that are legally exempt from licensing requirements are under no obligation to allow state officials to inspect their premises, Clement said.

“There are also some cases when the people don’t let us into the home,” she said. “If you’re not licensed, we have no authority over you.”

In New Hampshire, licensed child-care programs, which are run either in homes or in dedicated centers, are subject to state requirements regarding health and safety, training and other regulations.

Officials said they have no idea how many day-care providers operate outside oversight, since there’s no requirement to report to state child care regulators.

Chris Pressey-Murray, coordinator of the Dartmouth Child Care Project, which advises both parents and child-care providers, said the exempt providers play an important role, as there isn’t enough affordable, licensed child care to go around.

“Certainly the need for high-quality, affordable child care far exceeds the availability,” she said, adding that “no one type of care is better or worse than the other.”

There are high-quality licensed programs and high-quality exempt programs, she said.

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