Day care rape arrest shocks neighbors

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News that a Kingsbridge Heights man was charged with the repeated rape of a child in his wife’s home-based day care shocked parents — and has raised questions about how secure children really are in such facilities.

Alberto Hernandez, 60, was arrested May 1 and accused of rape and child abuse, police said. His wife, Maria Cortez, ran the day care out of their first-floor apartment at 2834 Heath Ave.

A 13-year-old girl told police Hernandez raped her several times between the ages of 6 and 10, authorities said. Hernandez is now being charged with first-, second- and third-degree rape, sexual assault against a child, and a litany of other abuse and criminal sex act crimes. Bail was set at $100,000.

When children are kept at an independent facility, many assume authorities vet staff members before contact with kids. But Hernandez simply lived in the same apartment the day care operated from. While the state requires family members and houseguests undergo the same background checks as employees to ensure kids are safe in such facilities, it’s not always perfect in catching problems.

There are more than 100 home-based day care centers in the northwest Bronx. All facilities operated by owners who take care of non-blood related children are subject to state licensing and regulation by the state’s children and family services office for up to 16 kids, depending on their age, the number teachers who work at the facility, and the number of hours the children will be at the center.

Cortez was first licensed in October 2010, according to the state. Her facility was approved as a family day care — a program caring for more than three hours per day per child in a family home for up to six children.

The department suspended Cortez’s license May 2.

Before the state grants a license, all members of the household must be fingerprinted and undergo a background check, according to a CFS spokeswoman. The state continually monitors the criminal history of household members, but in this instance, found no reported violations on Hernandez’s record.

Cortez’s facility was last inspected Feb. 13, with no violations found. In fact, over the last nine years, Cortez has had only one violation, issued in 2017. That violation focused primarily on sleeping arrangements for naps, and how that conforms with parent wishes.

Home-based day care centers are not required to physically partition a home’s living areas off from the child care areas, but providers are only allowed to provide child care in state-approved spaces, the spokeswoman said. The idea is to give parents a choice to be in a homelike environment, but also prevents children from wandering into private living quarters.

While such home-based day cares are not very common in Riverdale and Spuyten Duyvil where day cares using commercial space are more the norm, it’s much different in Kingsbridge and Marble Hill. There nearly a hundred home-based day cares are in operation — sometimes more than one in a single building.

Being in a center doesn’t mean the day care is any safer than one operated out of a home, according to Analisa Mercado. She’s owned Riverdale Learn ‘n Play Daycare for 15 years, which she runs out of her West 245th Street house.

Home-based facilities undergo the same kind of environmental and safety checks that stand-alone centers do. The same goes for the people who are around the children in the center’s care.

“When you apply for (an) in-home group family license, you have to note household family members, and anyone else who lives in there has to be put on the license,” Mercado said.

She is unmarried and has no children of her own, so that part of the licensing was easy. But day care owners with a family need to list everyone on application materials, and each adult must submit to a background check.

“So people who do have a husband around need to put that person on that application,” Mercado said. “Those people need to be cleared, too, because they’re going to be around the children, because it’s an in-home license.”

Although these procedures are in place to catch child predators, if there are no previous offenses or other indicators of an individual’s nature, the procedures won’t work. Hernandez, for example, passed all background checks and remained in good standing, allowing him to stay in the home, according to the state licensing department spokeswoman.

State regulators also conduct surprise inspections on all day care centers, Mercado said. If an inspector shows up and there’s an unauthorized person, it can result in a violation.

Even temporary guests are supposed to be recorded and names given to inspectors.

“Let’s just say my mother’s visiting,” Mercado said. “She’s a retired principal. If she stops by because she loves children and wants to bring them food or something, as soon as she walks in, I write her name down on the visitor’s log. You have to keep a visitor’s log of everybody who comes there who’s not named on the license.”

News of Hernandez’s charges rattled working parents who depend on child care. It sparked a debate about whether children are safe in day cares in general, and especially in home-based facilities.

Charlotte Jimenez went through the day care selection dilemma many parents face. After her daughter was born in 2014, Jimenez searched for a day care provider she could trust. She called dozens of facilities, including the one run by Cortez, which was around the corner from Jimenez’s home at the time on Bailey Avenue.

Jimenez ultimately chose to work part-time on the weekends when her husband could care for their child. But the experience of picking a day care was a strenuous one. A visit to a Marble Hill apartment where children colored in a cramped space next to two dogs in crates left her in tears.

“They can have the agreement with the city and you can find them on the website,” Jimenez said. “But then I think it’s really important to go to the place, talk to the person, see the other kids and feel the contact with the” day care provider.

She weighed the affordability of home-based day cares against the quality of their commercial counterparts. Day cares like The Learning Experience at 3210 Riverdale Ave., can cost north of $1,000 a month. Family day care centers generally charge about $125 a week, Jimenez said. When Jimenez’s daughter was 3, they had a really good experience with another home-based day care in Marble Hill.

“The lady was wonderful,” Jimenez said. “It all depends on the person.”

Hernandez is currently being held on Rikers Island, and was scheduled to appear in Bronx Criminal Court on Tuesday.