RICHMOND (WSLS 10) - A bill, signed into law Friday by Governor Terry McAuliffe, is sending a strong message to people operating unlicensed day cares.
If a child is hurt or killed at one of those facilities, the person operating the daycare could spend 10 years in jail.
The bill, nicknamed "Joseph's Bill," was backed by the family of Joseph Allen, a one-year-old child who died in a unlicensed day care that caught fire in Midlothian in 2014.
To date, there have been several cases throughout the state where children have died at some of these unlicensed facilities, and the operators get off with just a misdemeanor conviction and little to no jail-time.
One of those cases was in Lynchburg in 2014, and Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Doucette says it was hard to prosecute.
Doucette says when a house fire at an unlicensed Lynchburg day care left 21-month-old Kayden Curtis and 9-month-old Dakota Aubrey dead, his office had a tough time holding the owner accountable.
"We really had no options at that point but to go with the misdemeanor unlicensed day care," said Doucette.
A misdemeanor meant 55-year-old Doris Thompson got off with no jail time for failing to have a fire extinguisher in the house.
Doucette says thanks to the law signed Friday, that won't happen again.
"Had this law that the governor signed today been in effect back in 20-14, we would have had that other option to consider," said Doucette.
State Senator Barbara Favola was one of the biggest proponents of the bill.
She says safety at day care facilities is more important now than ever.
"It's an important issue because in today's economy, most families are two income families. Mothers have to leave their homes to work and they have to leave their children in the care of others," said Favola.
One argument against the bill had been registration could be difficult and costly for un-licensed facilities, but Doucette says that simply isn't true.
"The license for a day care facility is 14 dollars. So if they require you to have a fire extinguisher, I've bought fire extinguishers before, I paid about 20 dollars a piece. So the bottom line is the cost of providing this particular safety are not going to drive day cares out of business number one, and number two if they save lives, then it's money well spent," said Doucette.
Favola says the new law should encourage compliance, and will ultimately benefit thousands of families across the state.
"Parents, in my view, have a right to know as much information as possible on these home day providers and they should be able to expect a certain quality of care, and that includes safety," said Favola.
There is also a facet of the old law that allows facilities to legally operate without a license if the owner is caring for six children or less.
When this new law goes into affect July first, that number will drop to five.