Death Raises Questions of Private Daycare Safety

NBC 7 Investigates found it is very difficult for parents to review files on individual daycares

A year after a San Diego baby’s death, his parents are no closer to finding out what happened to him while he was in the care of an at-home daycare.

“He had such a fighting spirit very happy always had a smile on his face, really lovable,” said Cristina Oliver, describing her son.

Just five days shy of his first birthday, Lou Oliver's life came to an abrupt end.

“It was like almost every day it was like a bad dream and I wanted to wake up and hear him again,” she said.

On May 23, 2012, Cristina Oliver took her son to his Clairemont home daycare before heading into work.

Lou had been attending San Diego Daycare, also called James Nemeth Family Childcare full-time for two months.

The primary caretaker was owner James Nemeth. A few hours after dropping off Lou, Cristina received an alarming text message from Nemeth.

"It said 'Come quickly, Lou did not wake up from his afternoon nap,'” recalled Cristina.

Lou was rushed by ambulance to Rady Children's Hospital.

“It seemed like an hour before we got the results and it was then determined that, that he was really brain dead,” said Cristina.

Lou Oliver was declared dead at 1:30 a.m. May 24, 2012.

His parents waited anxiously to find out what had happened to their son.

“We were told by the medical team that perhaps it was a virus and they wouldn't know until an autopsy was performed. We assumed that was the only reasonable explanation,” said Cristina.

Meantime, they went back to Lou's daycare to talk to James Nemeth, hoping desperately to get answers.

“He said when he looked over at Lou he noticed something was wrong. He was gurgling, the color of his body was changing,” Cristina said.

Three months after Lou's death, the Olivers received horrifying news.

The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Lou's death a homicide.

The little boy had suffered head and spine trauma. The report states injuries were consistent to "shaken baby syndrome."

The family’s sadness turned to frustration and their focus turned to the daycare's owner.

Cristina said, “There's no witnesses cause everyone is underage.”

James Nemeth moved from his Clairemont home and daycare facility shortly after Lou's death.

NBC 7 tried several time to reach him by mail, email and phone. Nemeth did respond to one email but declined our request for an interview or to answer any questions pertaining to this story and Lou's death.

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James Nemeth was not arrested or charged in Lou's death.

But, In July, two months after Lou passed, the Department of Social Services, the agency responsible for licensing and regulating home daycares, suspended James Nemeth's daycare license.

The agency determined there was "an immediate risk to the children in care at the Nemeth James family childcare."

The Department of Social Services also prohibited James Nemeth from operating or working in any daycare facility.

Cristina and Michael Oliver thought their son was in a safe environment.

The daycare was recommended by their local YMCA. They checked with several references and all gave James Nemeth glowing reviews.

But what they didn't know was that James Nemeth had been cited by the Department of Social Services several times, dating back to 2007.

Documents obtained by NBC 7 Investigates show in December 2007, Nemeth was fined for a lack of criminal clearance for a woman working at his daycare. He was also cited for not having locks on his liquor cabinet.

In January 2008, Nemeth was investigated for being physically rough and yelling at his own son and a girlfriend's child in his care.

Nemeth disputed the allegations in a letter of appeal writing, "I do not raise my voice in anger or frustration to anyone especially my own children. I also do not get rough with any child out of anger or frustration."

Two years ago, there were claims that "personal rights of a child in care were violated." The allegation was determined inconclusive.

In 2012, the Department of Social Services found he was in a physical fight with another parent in front of a child.

Had the Olivers read James Nemeth's file beforehand, they say they would have never trusted him with their son.

Michael Oliver said, “I quite frankly was blown away that he still had a license.”

But obtaining the file for a home daycare isn't easy. You have to make an appointment with a local social services office and review the file in person.

Cristina Oliver said, “It should be easy for us to go online, type in the licensing number and see the whole case file on there. It seems like it’s archaic right now. This gigantic pile you have to sift through and look for information. It’s very laborious.”

NBC 7 asked the Department of Social Service's Deputy Director of Public Affairs several times to do an on camera or phone interview, which he repeatedly refused. He would not comment specifically on James Nemeth, his day-care facility, or Lou's death because he said it was an "ongoing investigation."

It's been over a year since Lou's death.

His room is still exactly as he left it.

The Olivers have tried to move on with life the best they can. In addition to their oldest son who is now 3, they added a little girl to their family. But the family says moving forward completely will be impossible without some answers.

Michael Oliver said, “Obviously we want to know what happened, we want someone to come forward and just say ‘I lost my cool, I lost my temper’, but it’s unacceptable. That individual is going to have to live with that for the rest of their life but we have to live with the fact that we don't have Lou anymore.”

According to documents provided by the Department of Social Services, 18 children have died in San Diego County daycares in the past five years. Seventeen of those deaths occurred at an in-home daycare facilities.

The department’s spokesperson said they have 21 employees responsible for monitoring licensed daycares in San Diego and Imperial Counties.

Each employee is responsible for about 250 active child-care facilities.

In the case of Lou Oliver, the San Diego Police Department says no arrests have been made and the investigation is ongoing.

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