Twin Toddlers Drown in Backyard Pool at a Daycare That Had a History of Complaints
The Tennessee child care center where twin toddlers drowned last week has a history of complaints and, two months before the kids died, it was ordered to stop operating because it was unlicensed, PEOPLE confirms.
Elijah and Elyssa Orejuela were found on Friday around 10 a.m. in the backyard pool of Om Baby day care, which was run in a home in West Knoxville.
According to the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, a worker looked for the twins after the arrival of another child and found them in the deep end of the water, unresponsive.
The children were reportedly rushed to nearby East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, where Elyssa died that same day. Elijah was placed on life support and was pronounced dead two days later, according to local TV station WFMY.
They would have turned 2 in August.
“After much heartbreak, Elijah has gone to be with his sister Elyssa. They were formed together in my womb and came into the world together,” the twins’ mother, Amelia Wieand, told the Knoxville News Sentinel. “Both kids were extremely strong. She was his other half. They were soul mates and never apart. Even in death they were together.”
Wieand said they donated Elijah’s organs.
“I’ll never understand this, and I’m not sure how to live with this pain,” she said. “But to prevent another family from suffering this immeasurable pain, today Elijah became a superhero.”
A GoFundMe campaign was set up for the family to help pay for funeral expenses and medical bills. So far, more than $33,000 has been raised.
PEOPLE’s efforts to reach child care center employees or its owner, Jennifer Salley, have been unsuccessful.
Three Complaints This Year
In May, about two months before the twins died, the Tennessee Department of Human Services, which licenses child care facilities in the state, served the center with an injunction after DHS workers said that Salley was unlicensed to operate a child care center.
Because the center did not have a license, Salley could not take care of more than four unrelated children at a time for periods longer than three hours, according to DHS spokesman Sky Arnold
Salley agreed to the state’s injunction, which prevented her from “establishing, conducting, managing or operating” any kind of child care facility, Arnold tells PEOPLE.
Essentially, “it ordered her to not have any more than four unrelated children in the house at a time,” he explains.
The DHS investigation had been triggered after the state department received three complaints, according to Arnold. The complaints, obtained by the News Sentinel, were in January, March and May.
However, Arnold says state workers were only able to substantiate a claim in the May complaint that Salley had too many kids in her care, which had been alleged in other complaints.
One of the complaints alleged that Salley took payment in pain medication. Arnold says that claim has not been substantiated.
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In investigating the May complaint, a state worker visited the center on May 9 and found an infant and toddler alone and unsupervised in a dark room that “smelled strongly like feces,” according to the complaint as reported by the News Sentinel.
Salley’s apparent assistant allegedly told the worker she would change the toddler’s diaper, then she shut the door, according to the complaint. The assistant allegedly said Salley was at the doctor at the time.
The worker observed six children in another room of the home, according to the paper’s account of the complaint.
On another occasion, according to the News Sentinel, two more DHS evaluators allegedly stopped by the home but no one answered the door. Still, the evaluators said that they could hear children inside singing.
According to DHS employees, an online advertisement for Salley’s center — later taken down — stated that the business was licensed and that Salley was trained in CPR and first aid, according to the News Sentinel.
Salley allegedly told investigators she had not pursued her business license due to fire safety requirements.
Investigation Is Ongoing
According to Arnold, the DHS is not alleging that Salley violated the injunction preventing her from operating a child care facility and as such they do not believe that, at the time of the toddlers’ drowning, she was taking care of more than four kids for longer than three hours.
Both the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the state’s Department of Children’s Services are investigating the incident.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Hillary Martin tells PEOPLE “the case will be presented to the D.A. for possible charges against responsible parties, if there are any.”