Police: Daycare employees admit to not checking for 5-year-old in van

(SOURCE: Family)
(SOURCE: Family)

WEST MEMPHIS, AR (WMC) - Four people could face charges after a 5-year-old was left inside a hot daycare van for hours on Monday.

The mother of 5-year-old Christopher Gardner said she hasn't heard a word from Ascent Children's Health Services about why her son died in a transport van.

"They need to explain why and how they let this happen to my child," Christopher's mother Ashley Smith said. "It was the worst day of my life."

Emotions were high Tuesday as the West Memphis family struggled to understand how a 5-year-old so full of life could be forgotten on a hot van.

"He got on that van and why didn't they go and check and see if he was on that van?" the boy's grandmother, Carrie Smith, asked.

Ashley Smith said she received a call from Ascent on Monday afternoon around 3:30 p.m. and was told that her son was left in the van. He had been picked up at roughly 6:45 a.m.

"When you're telling me you found my son on the bus, I knew then my son was gone," she said.

Arkansas Department of Human Services and West Memphis Police Department launched investigations and so far, West Memphis Chief Donald Oakes said the preliminary investigation show four people could have stopped the child's death had they done their jobs and checked on the van.

"This was avoidable," Oakes said. "This should not have happened."

Oakes said a van driver and an additional adult rider should have checked the bus for the child, in addition to an employee whose job it is to monitor all vans at Ascent throughout the day for children.

"This child was going to school and his parents were putting him on a bus," Oakes said. "No bad decisions, just horrible lack of effort on the part of the people taking care of this child."

The child was signed in as though he was in class. Oakes said employees at Ascent told investigators it was common practice just to sign the children into the building.

"Apparently it is routine for them to sign all their children in, whether they're there are not," Oakes said.

He said the reason for the practice is because Ascent, which he describes as a kind of Head Start Program, is paid based on the attendance of the children. Oakes said employees eventually admitted on videotape that they never checked the van Christopher was in - even though protocols were in place for at least four different people who should have checked.

"Christopher is known at that school. You didn't know Christopher was missing?" Ashley said, struggling to understand why nobody noticed Christopher wasn't inside. "It's so hard because I'm still sitting in there thinking he's in school. I'm still thinking it's a dream and I can't wake up from it."

Investigators checked the temperature of a neighboring van Monday and it was 141 degrees.

"Ain't nobody come to me and apologized. I just want justice," Ashley said. "I feel like they took my son away for no reason."

DHS officials checked the van Tuesday to see whether a door alarm on the back of the van was hooked up and functional.

Christopher's body was sent to Little Rock for an autopsy.

"It didn't take them but two minutes or one minute to go back and get off they lazy a-- and go see where the kids at; they didn't check for my grandbaby," grandmother Carrie Smith said.

Ascent has not issued a statement or spoken publicly about the child's death.

The prosecuting attorney will review the case. The police chief said it could take weeks to come to any charging decisions.

Funeral arrangements hadn't been made for Gardner.

Department of Human Services issued a statement regarding Christopher's death.

No one was at the facility on Tuesday when WMC Action News 5's Kendall Downing stopped by to ask them questions.

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