Day Care Owner Gets Community Service in Baby's Death
November 2, 2005

The former owner of an overcrowded Queens day care center where an infant suffocated in his crib under a pile of toys last year pleaded guilty yesterday to reckless endangerment, in a deal carrying a sentence of 1,250 hours of community service.

The owner, Heather Zlotshewer, 35, was also barred from working in child care.

On Aug. 11, 2004, the 6-month-old child, Matthew Perilli, was napping unattended in his playpen on the second floor of Devlin Day Care in Forest Hills. Ms. Zlotshewer found him under a pile of toys, not breathing. Prosecutors said that there were two 3-year-olds in the room at the time and that one of them told the police that they had piled toys on top of Matthew.

Ms. Zlotshewer performed CPR and ran to the hospital with him in her arms, but Matthew did not survive.

Ms. Zlotshewer seemed frail as she appeared in Queens Criminal Court in Kew Gardens yesterday. She shuffled to the bench, her blue suit hanging off her gaunt frame.

Responding to questions from Judge Eugene Lopez, she admitted to breaking several child care regulations set by the city, including supervising six more children than regulations permitted, having two uncertified employees, and leaving some children unsupervised. She declined to make a statement in court and avoided reporters afterwards.

Matthew's parents, Maria and Vincent Perilli, read prepared statements. Mrs. Perilli called Matthew "a beautiful baby, our most precious gift and a joy to behold" and "an utterly joyous and cherubic child."

Addressing Ms. Zlotshewer, she said: "We saw you as a loving and caring person, a mother yourself, and you convinced us that you could care for Matthew. If you couldn't do this, then you shouldn't have accepted him into your care."

Mrs. Perilli criticized her for allowing unsupervised toddlers to play in the same room as infants. "What's most disturbing, though, is that you didn't even know where Matthew was," she said. "How can you lose a baby that can't even crawl?"

"Matthew was ignored and unaccounted for so long that two 3-year-olds were able to throw on him enough toys and stuffed animals to suffocate him," she said. "It is too painful to imagine how he must have struggled for a breath and suffered such a horrific death."

In a statement distributed to reporters, Ms. Zlotshewer's lawyer Stephen McCarthy said, "Heather Zlotshewer's heartfelt sorrow and sympathy goes out to the Perilli family."

"Her deepest prayers have been with Matthew and his parents since the day this horrible tragedy occurred," the statement added.

Matthew's death led to changes in the Health Department's Bureau of Day Care and to reforms that include more frequent inspections. Under Health Department regulations, caregivers must be watching children at all times. According to prosecutors, city health inspectors visited Devlin Day Care earlier on the day Matthew died and observed Ms. Zlotshewer with eight infants on the first floor, a violation of regulations that require one adult for every two children under age 2 in an in-home center. They asked her about noise upstairs, and she told them two 3-year-olds were playing up there. A Health Department report after the death noted that the inspectors accepted the explanation without investigating further.