- By Madeline Halpert
- BBC News, New York
Rosa passes Divino Niño Daycare every day on her way to work at her own childcare centre in the northern New York City borough of the Bronx.
Rosa (not her real name) said she used to glance at the sign in the daycare’s window, taking note of another childcare facility in a neighbourhood where parents sometimes have to step around drug users passed out in the streets on their way to drop off their children.
But last week, Rosa and others in the community were shocked to learn that Divino Niño daycare itself had become a crime scene.
On 15 September, a one-year-old boy died of a suspected drug overdose at Divino Niño nursery after officials said fentanyl was hidden under a mat the children used for napping.
Three other young children were admitted to hospital, and the nursery’s owner, Grei Mendez, 36, and her tenant, Carlisto Acevedo Brito, 41, are charged with narcotics possession with intent to distribute resulting in death.
“Never in a million years did I think that was happening there,” Rosa said. “I was horrified.”
Rosa has asked that her identity remain private for fear of repercussions.
She is one of several residents who told the BBC the incident has rocked the Bronx community and raised broader concerns about the neighbourhood’s battle with the opioid epidemic.
“The incident is atrocious and so tragic,” said New York City Council Member Eric Dinowitz, whose district covers the daycare’s neighbourhood.
Divino Niño nursery is located in Kingsbridge Heights, a predominately Hispanic and Latino community nestled in the north-west Bronx.
Mr Dinowitz and others who grew up in the area say the community – and the Bronx as a whole – has long faced issues of drug trafficking, homelessness and underinvestment.
In 2021, 27% of the Kingsbridge Heights population lived in poverty, compared to 18% of all New York City residents, according to research from New York University. Bronx residents also had the highest rate of deaths from drug overdoses out of all the New York City boroughs that year.
Israel Sterling, a resident of Kingsbridge Heights, said conditions in the area had worsened since the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said he was horrified to learn of the fentanyl incident at the nursery – but not entirely surprised.
“It’s sad that the little boy lost his life, but that’s an everyday thing,” he said.
“No-one would have expected it, but we live in the slums,” he added.
Rosa said local drug dealers had warned her not to open her daycare centre just three blocks away from Divino Niño in 2017 because they said it would impede their own business.
“They said this is where people sell drugs,” she said.
Faced with limited employment options, Rosa decided to push ahead with her plans for the daycare, eager to provide a service for children with special needs in an area where high-quality options were limited.
She and other residents in the area argued that city officials should have been conducting more thorough inspections of childcare facilities to prevent such a tragedy.
“If there were stricter regulations and more inspections and things like that, I think it would have never happened,” she said.
Inspectors had conducted a surprise visit at Divino Niño just a week before the children were poisoned – and found no violations.
Investigators later said they found a large quantity of fentanyl, other drugs and paraphernalia hidden under a trapdoor at the daycare.
Mr Dinowitz said it seemed city officials had performed a thorough job. “Are we now asking inspectors to pry up the floorboards and look for trapdoors?” he asked.
He and other community members argued larger steps should be taken to address the community’s opioid crisis and the underlying factors that have contributed to it.
New York City councilmembers have pushed for a number of measures to address the opioid crisis, including syringe exchange programmes and requiring schools to have the overdose drug Narcan on hand, he said.
Within the community, local groups have tried to address issues of homelessness and hunger, said Carmen, an employee of Fordham Manor Church, just blocks away from Divino Niño nursery.
But the government needs to pour more resources such as schooling, workforce development and community centres, to combat rising issues of poverty and drug trafficking in Bronx neighbourhoods, Mr Dinowitz argued.
“This isn’t just about looking for the drugs,” he said. “It’s about investment in a community.”
“The death of a baby shouldn’t be the wake-up call that we need to take these problems seriously,” he added.
With reporting by John Sudworth and Pratiksha Ghildial
Follow us on Facebook : https://web.facebook.com/wacnews
To receive the latest news on your phone using the Telegram application, click here: https://t.me/+KMdLTc0qS6ZkMGI0
Send us a message by Whatsapp : Whatsapp +44 7476844931