WATCH: DHS visits Knox County daycare in May

Local News

The owner of the daycare where two children drowned on Friday was served paperwork in May by the Department of Human Services ordering her to stop running a daycare inside her home.

Court documents provided by DHS say complaints against Jennifer Salley began on January 24 when it was reported that she and an assistant were caring for eight children in the home on Fox Lonas Road. In Tennessee, unlicensed daycare owners are allowed to care for no more than four unrelated children.

On January 25, DHS conducted an unannounced visit to the home, but there was no answer at the door. They tried again on February 1, but there was still no answer. 

On March 28, DHS received another complaint saying that Salley’s advertisement on Care.com for the daycare called “Om Baby” had space for six children and had been open since 2010. The next day, DHS agents came to the home, but there was no answer at the door. They could hear adults and children singing along to a recording of “Sweet Caroline” inside. After they knocked, someone turned up the volume of the music. 

The next day, Salley called DHS and asked to send copies of letters she sent home to parents in January saying she must disenroll seven children to become in compliance with state rules. In the letters, copies of which are attached to the court documents, she admits to regularly caring for 11 children, said she disagreed with the state rules which were hurting her livelihood, and believed that disgruntled family members were filing the complaints.

On April 6, DHS conducted a follow-up visit and sat in a vehicle outside Salley’s home just after 7 a.m. They watched four children be dropped off by their parents. Eventually, Salley asked the agents to come inside and they asked why her Care.com profile said she was state-licensed, when she was not. The court filing says Salley told them she had applied for a business license but decided against it because of fire codes. She admitted she has 17 children enrolled but would only keep four at a time.

A third complaint was called in on May 5, alleging Salley cared for at least 10 children, said they were concerned because Salley has a history with the Department of Children’s Services, and alleged that she sometimes took pain medication as payment for child care.

DHS visited again on May 9 and saw from the front window several children playing in the front room. Another caregiver opened the door and said she was caring for the children while Salley was at a doctor’s appointment. She admitted there were eight children there at the time.

While DHS was there, another parent arrived to drop off a child, but they told the caregiver the child could not be accepted. DHS told the caregiver they would stay on the premises until all but four children had been returned to their parents.

DHS then looked through the house to count how many children were there and found one child in a closed and totally darkened bedroom inside a pack ‘n’ play. The room smelled of feces. The caregiver told the toddler she would change his diaper and shut the door.

The caregiver then went to another closed bedroom and called out a child’s name, but then realized a different child was in the room. The court documents say neither child in closed bedrooms were under any supervision.

A larger room behind the kitchen contained six unrelated children ages infant to four years old. There was a baby gate and a schedule posted on the wall. The caretaker said she didn’t want to sign any documents because she “didn’t want to get into trouble” for having all the children present.

Soon thereafter a man and woman arrived and took four children with them. The caretaker later admitted they were not the children’s parents, but that the parents wouldn’t care “because we are all friends and keep each other’s children.” DHS left when there were only four children left.

A judge issued an order prohibiting Salley from operating a daycare with more than four children present. DHS said Salley agreed to comply with the order and no more complaints were filed after that. 

“At this point, it is our understanding that she was not in violation of that when the incident at the pool occurred,” DHS spokesman Sky Arnold said.

By signing the order, Arnold said she agreed to no longer care for more than four children without first obtaining a license. The order doesn’t prohibit her from caring for less than four children. 

Arnold said the department has no record of the woman at the address ever having a child care license.

According to paperwork from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, deputies accompanied DHS officials to serve the order to Salley.

WATE knocked on Salley’s door Tuesday to try and get her response about these allegations and complaints filed against her. No one came to the door. WATE also called the phone number listed for Salley on the complaint. A message saying the number called had been either changed or disconnected played.

Neighbors told WATE there has been a somber feeling across the neighborhood. 

“My first emotions were tears. I just couldn’t imagine how something like that could happen,” said Carol Huffaker “There have been so many people stopping at the front of our house or walking in the neighbor and they just want to talk about it.”

Huffaker said she sends her condolences to the family, praying for peace and comfort in the days ahead.

“I’m just very saddened, just very saddened and my heart goes out to all involved,” said Huffaker.

The twin toddlers, a nearly-two-year-old boy and girl, were pulled from the pool and rushed to Children’s Hospital. The girl died on Friday. According to the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and Children’s Hospital, the boy was placed on life support, but died on Sunday.

Deputies said the twins were staying with a babysitter at a home on Fox Lonas Road. The babysitter said she started looking for the twins after another child arrived around 10 a.m. and found them in the deep end of the swimming pool.

According to Knox County’s new business filing database, the house on Fox Lonas Road where the drowning happened was registered as an in-home daycare called Om Baby to Jennifer Salley in January 2015. 

The Care.com listing for Om Baby says the daycare has been in business since 2010 and is state-licensed. The site shows the daycare has space for three infants and three toddlers at a rate of $40 per day.

The daycare also offers summer swim lessons at a cost of $150. 

The most recent review of the daycare was posted on June 3. 

KCSO and the Department of Children’s Services are investigating.

More online: Find nearby child care facilities licensed by the state

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