The call came on Friday afternoon: Three children at a small downstairs daycare in the Bronx couldn’t wake up from nap time.
Emergency medical workers arrived at the six-story brick building around 2:45 p.m. and found a 1-year-old boy unconscious, along with a 2-year-old boy and an 8-month-old girl. The first responders immediately suspected drugs.
They gave it to the little children the overdose reversal drug Narcan and took them away. Another 2-year-old boy, who had left daycare shortly after noon, was taken to a hospital after his mother noticed that unusual lethargy had replaced a toddler’s normal kinetic energy.
Nicholas Dominici, who would have turned 2 in November, was pronounced dead at Montefiore Medical Center on Friday. Early Saturday, the other three children were in critical or stable condition, and police were questioning a person they had not yet identified after discovering equipment typically used by drug traffickers at the scene.
Nicholas’ death brought together two crises afflicting New York and the nation at large: working parents’ desperate search for affordable, reliable child care and the scourge of opioids like fentanyl, which contributed to approximately 75,000 overdose deaths in the United States last year. The Bronx, one of the city’s districts, has been especially affected by the drug, which can kill in minimal quantities.
“This crisis is real and it is a real wake-up call for people who have opioids or fentanyl in their homes,” Mayor Eric Adams said in a briefing shortly after midnight.
On Saturday, at least one person was in police custody and being questioned, according to police, and the New York City medical examiner’s office said an autopsy was scheduled to determine the cause of Nicholas’ death. Police did not name the person or people they had in custody Saturday.
Joseph E. Kenny, chief of detectives for the Police Department, said at the news conference that the episode was the subject of an “active criminal investigation.” He added that suspicions about opioid exposure were fueled by the children’s symptoms and the discovery of a kilo press, commonly used by drug dealers to package large quantities of drugs, in the daycare during a search.
In 2021 there were 2,668 fatal overdoses in the city, reaching “unprecedented levels,” according to data released by the city this year. The increase was driven by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that was involved in 80 percent of overdose deaths that year, with Bronx residents having the highest rate of deaths, the city found. The daycare, Divino Niño, is located in the 52nd Precinct in the northern Bronx, which is among the areas hardest hit by fatal overdoses.
It was unclear how the children could have come into contact with any drugs. Almost all cases of children exposed to opioids in the United States involved children who ingested the drug, a 2019 study in the Journal of Pediatrics found.
The study analyzed more than 80,000 records of children who had been exposed to opioid-containing drugs between 2010 and 2014, and found that approximately 99 percent of the exposures involved children who ingested the drug.
The other exposure routes included inhalation or contact with the children’s eyes, but the study data was largely self-reported, making it difficult to determine whether those types of exposure would have been enough to make the children sick.
At the midnight news conference, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, commissioner of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said that “a young child, someone we wouldn’t think would be at risk of interacting with opioids, has come into contact with with a powerful substance.”
“What it tells us is that the overdose crisis affects us all, so it is a public health moment in which everyone must step up,” he added. “Our hearts go out to the family for their loss.”
On Saturday, efforts to locate Nicholas’ relatives were unsuccessful. In the afternoon, a small group of journalists had formed in front of his family’s apartment building. Two police officers were stationed at the main door.
A half-mile away, the daycare at 2707 Morris Avenue that had cared for Nicholas was searched in May and had capacity for eight children ages 6 weeks to 12 years, according to to public records.
Calls to a number listed for the daycare were not immediately returned Saturday. A woman who answered the phone for Grei F. Méndez De Ventura, a person listed as a contact for the location, said she did not wish to be interviewed.
Officials said the daycare had been licensed by the state Office of Children and Family Services after passing two inspections. A “surprise” inspection last week by the city health department on behalf of the state agency found no violations, Dr. Vasan said. Unannounced inspections of licensed child care providers are standard procedure and do not necessarily indicate a suspected problem.
A spokesman for the state agency, Solomon Syed, said he could not comment on an investigation.
The small daycare center in a mostly residential area is part of circular crisis throughout the city: Parents are struggling to earn enough to pay for child care while working, while child care workers themselves are reeling from high costs and leaving the industry. In New York’s working-class neighborhoods, small day care centers in apartment buildings are common.
Anna Ortiz-Irving, 73, who lives next door to Divino Niño, said she was friendly with the mother and daughter who she said owned the place, and who had worked hard for months to fix it up, putting in new floors and putting up walls.
“It’s not a basement,” Ortiz-Irving said. «It is a walk-in apartment. You could walk by and look in and see how nice everything was. She always had the window open. “They had doors, but you could look in and see how beautiful the inside was.”
The nursery’s windows are covered with blue metal bars and a Minnie Mouse sticker adorns one of the curtains. Behind curtains decorated with coffee cups, scented candles sit on window sills next to a collection of books.
The building on Morris Avenue is right next to the busy commercial thoroughfare of Kingsbridge Avenue. On Saturday, children were everywhere: strolling in strollers down the avenue and jumping in colorful tights along the sidewalks, their screams echoing through an otherwise quiet neighborhood.
On Friday night, neighbors had looked through open apartment windows as the flashing light of an emergency services vehicle reflected off the glass, and investigators were near a sealed 30-foot radius around the nursery.
Ms. Ortiz-Irving said a neighbor told her that shortly after 2 p.m. one of the women who operated the daycare ran out and screamed for help because she couldn’t wake the children from their nap.
“Someone called 911, but she panicked,” he said.
“I don’t know what happened,” he added. “All I can tell you is that she and her mother are decent people.”
like the fast The spread of fentanyl has caused a terrible number of deaths. In New York City and elsewhere, young children have not been spared.
Opioids were the leading cause of poisoning deaths in children five years old and younger between 2005 and 2018, A study in the journal Pediatrics found. And opioids accounted for an increasing proportion of fatal poisonings in young children.
The study, published in March, analyzed 731 poisoning-related deaths in 40 states. The authors found that opioids, a class of synthetic drugs that includes prescription painkillers but also illegal narcotics such as heroin and fentanyl, contributed to nearly half, or 47 percent, of those deaths.
In just a few months of 2021, fentanyl and other opioids were linked to the death of a 11-month-old girl in South Carolinato 10-month-old boy in Pennsylvaniato 2-year-old boy in Indiana and a 15 month old boy in California.
In New York, a A 22-month-old child died in June 2021 after his father fed him a bottle of formula contaminated with fentanyl in the apartment where they lived in a homeless shelter on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, according to a criminal complaint charging the father with murder involuntary. The boy’s body contained enough drugs to kill an adult, authorities said.
In November of that year, the 10 month old granddaughter novelist Paul Auster died from an overdose of fentanyl and heroin. The girl’s father, Daniel Auster, was loaded in his death; The case was pending when she also died after a drug overdose.
And in February, the Death of 16-month-old boy on Staten Island was ruled a homicide after an overdose of a combination of fentanyl, acetylfentanyl and cocaine.
On Saturday in the Bronx it seemed that another child would be added to the number of victims. The only sign of a new victim in the opioid epidemic was tied to the blue door leading to the building’s main entrance: a small piece of yellow caution tape.
Benjamin Mueller and Erin Nolan contributed with reports.