A kilogram of fentanyl was found near mats that children used for napping at a Bronx day care site where one toddler died and three other children were hospitalized last week, the police said on Monday night.
Chief Joseph Kenny, the Police Department's chief of detectives, explained just how close to the children the potent narcotic was: "It was laid underneath a mat where the children had been sleeping earlier," he said at a news conference, where he joined Mayor Eric Adams and other city officials.
The unsettling revelation came as Mr. Adams and the city's health commissioner defended the administration's oversight of the day care program, one of thousands of such operations in New York City that are licensed to operate out of people's homes.
City inspectors, who examine the homes on behalf of the state, had made a “surprise” visit to the day care program where the boy died, Divino Ni?得 on Morris Avenue, on Sept. 6. They found it to be fully in compliance with a 40-point checklist and noted that "all medications, toxic substances" were being "used and stored so no hazard created" and that "poisonous, toxic, flammable and dangerous items are inaccessible to children."
Dr. Ashwin Vasan, the heath commissioner, said at the news conference that inspectors had followed their regular routine in ensuring there were no risks to children at the apartment housing the program.
Checking for a powerful synthetic opioid was not their usual practice, he said.
"I'm very sorry, but one of the things my child care inspectors are not trained to do is look for fentanyl," Dr. Vasan said. "But maybe we need to start."
Mr. Adams objected when a reporter asked what he would say to reassure concerned parents who might wonder whether something had "fallen through the cracks" to allow drugs into the day care site.
"This did not fall through the cracks," the mayor said. "The team did their job."
Emergency medical workers were called to the site on Friday afternoon after three of the children showed unusual lethargy when being roused from their naps. The fourth child had left before nap time, the police said.
Rescuers administered the overdose-reversal medication Narcan to the three children at the apartment and then took them to a hospital.
Two of the children, a 2-year-old boy and an 8-month-old girl, regained consciousness and were "doing fine," on Monday, Chief Kenny said. The fourth child, a 2-year-old boy, was taken to a hospital separately. He, too, received Narcan and was also "fine," Chief Kenny said.
The third child, Nicholas Dominici, was pronounced dead at the hospital. He would have turned 2 in November. As of Monday, the city's medical examiner had not disclosed his cause of death, but Chief Kenny said medical tests showed that the three other children had fentanyl in their systems.
On Monday, Nicholas's father, Otoniel Feliz, 32, called it "horrible that drugs were found in a place where children are cared for."
"In what mind does it make sense that you're going to mix narcotics with children?" he said.
The authorities had previously said they found the kilogram of fentanyl in a hallway closet, along with a pair of so-called kilo presses used by drug dealers to package large quantities of drugs.
Another press was found in the bedroom of a tenant, Carlisto Acevedo Brito, 41, who was renting the room from the day care program's owner, Grei Mendez, 36. Mr. Brito and Ms. Mendez have been charged with murder for showing "depraved indifference" in the death of Nicholas.
Ms. Mendez and Mr. Brito were arraigned Sunday night in Bronx Criminal Court. Ms. Mendez's lawyer, Andres Aranda, said at her arraignment there was no indication that Ms. Mendez knew anything about the drugs. Efforts to reach Mr. Brito's lawyer on Monday were unsuccessful.
Chief Kenny said that Mr. Brito had come to the United States from the Dominican Republic about a year ago; that the police were seeking a "person of interest" in the case; and that security video footage appeared to show some items being removed from the day care site after the 911 call was made. Investigators were also working with the federal authorities to determine whether Divino Ni?得 had been opened as a front for a drug operation, he said.
Divino Ni?得, which was licensed by the state in May to serve up to eight children at a time, fell into a category of day care programs that are typically run out of apartments, often by working-class residents to serve working-class families.
There are more than 7,000 such programs serving more than 86,000 children scattered across the city, according to a recent study by the New School. The death at Divino Ni?得 has prompted questions about how well such operations are being regulated.
"How did this happen? What are our protocols?" said Councilwoman Pierina Ana Sanchez, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood where the death occurred. "Is it the protocol to check you know, every single room in a home?"
Dr. Vasan insisted that what had happened at Divino Ni?得 did not suggest a broader problem, saying the health department inspected "hundreds if not thousands of these sites every year for their safety."
The inspection system, he added, had "served us well because we keep our babies safe through thousands of these centers."
Those who apply to operate a home day care program must undergo a background check, as must any other residents of the home. It was unclear whether Mr. Brito's background had been checked. Neither he nor Ms. Mendez had an arrest record, Chief Kenny said.
The city's inspection noted that Divino Nino's employees and volunteers had completed federal health and safety training.
Jeffrey Chartier, a lawyer for Nicholas's family, said on Monday that the family had vetted the day care program through a community center and did not know its operator was also renting rooms to tenants.
The state Office of Children and Family Services, which licenses home day care programs, said in a statement that it would not comment because the incident remained under investigation, but Mr. Adams defended the city's inspectors on Monday.
"They did all the proper inspections you're supposed to do," he said, faulting "the people there to protect the children."
"The inspectors did not go in and see a drug lab and ignore it," he added.
Ms. Sanchez said the day care tragedy had called attention to "so many different challenges that the Bronx has," including the scarcity of affordable child care and the deadly scourge of drugs.
Opioids like fentanyl caused roughly 75,000 overdose deaths nationwide last year. According to New York City data, there were 2,668 fatal overdoses in the city in 2021, a record high, with fentanyl a factor in four out of five drug deaths, and the highest rates came in the Bronx.
When the overdose data for last year is released soon, Dr. Vasan said, "we will once again hit a record peak."
Divino Ni?得 lies on a vibrant stretch of Morris Avenue in the northern Bronx.
Christopher Lucero, 19, who lives on the same block, said the street was often loud and filled with people hanging out on the sidewalk. The building containing the program is known locally for drug dealers and fights out front, he said.
"You see people coming in and out of that place," said Mr. Lucero. "Drugs aren't out of the ordinary here."
On Monday, a red-beaded rosary hung from a blue metal security gate outside the apartment, which still had colorful signage welcoming families adorning a door. On the sidewalk, mourners had fashioned a small memorial of candles, children's toys and a bouquet of white flowers.
A neighbor, Jenni Hilario, 28, said on Sunday that the occupants of the apartment would blast loud music at night.
"A lot of people do that here," she said. "But they had a day care, and day care starts early in the morning. So that didn't give me confidence, that they stayed out so late."
She added that she had considered sending her young children to Divino Ni?得 because of its affordability but questioned why they did not provide her with information about their safety policies.
"I didn't have confidence in them," she said.
Reporting was contributed by Sharon Otterman, Ana Ley, Eliza Shapiro, Claire Fahy, Kate Pastor and Christopher Maag.
themes: New York City New York (state)
Fentanyl addicts overrun NYC neighborhood where 1-year-old boy died at drugged-up day care, shocking residents
The shocking death of a Bronx toddler who inhaled fentanyl at a day care center that served as a front for a drug mill has shaken locals - and dredged up memories of the "bad old days" when crack cocaine infested the neighborhood and sent many promising youth to an early grave.
Some say the fentanyl epidemic - driven by the cheap, extraordinarily lethal opioid - has already rotted the Kingsbridge neighborhood in the north Bronx, which is where 1-year-old Nicholas Feliz Dominici died and three other kids were hospitalized after being exposed to the drug Friday.
"My heart breaks for this neighborhood," Jorge Gonzalez, 62, told The Post on Monday, adding he's "lived here practically all my life."
"I saw it at its worst, when people were smoking crack in open view," he continued. "I thought those days were long behind us. Now it's back.
"Just walk down Kingsbridge Avenue when it's not raining," Gonzalez said. "You have to step over the people lying all over the sidewalk. You can't believe it's happening, but it's happening."
Abnar Reynoso, a 40-year-old father of three, said it's been tough to watch his little sliver of the city slide downhill.
"Kingsbridge was never the best neighborhood, but people always had a way of keeping their dignity," he said.
"When you see people splayed out on the sidewalks, you're just like ... really? The city's just gonna let this happen?" he continued. "This is a health crisis. Just because it's self-inflicted, it doesn't mean it's not a health crisis. Addiction is a disease and the enablers are enabling, and no one's doing anything to stop them."
It's not just angry locals who say fentanyl has taken a tremendous toll on their neighborhood.
Police sources said the Bronx is dotted with drug mills - including the 52nd Precinct, where the drugged-up Divino Nino Daycare was located.
"Most of them go unnoticed because there isn't a lot of traffic going in and out of the locations," one Bronx cop said. "But they're in apartments all over the area - and no one would ever suspect they were dealing in these deadly drugs."
There's little doubt the borough has been kneecapped by the widening epidemic, which has struck the Big Apple with unprecedented force.
In 2021, about 2,127 of the 2,252 opioid overdose deaths registered in New York City involved fentanyl - or more than 94%, according to a New York State Department of Health report.
Residents of the Bronx had the highest rate of fatal overdoses that year, at nearly 71 deaths per 100,000 residents, according to another report from the city's health department.
The Bronx also has the highest percentage of drug poisoning deaths in the city, according to Frank Tarentino, special agent in charge of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's New York Division.
More than three-quarters are fentanyl-related, he said.
"It is imperative to warn New Yorkers that fentanyl is being mixed with all illegal drugs - cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin," Tarentino told The Post Monday.
"It's a big problem," one police source said. "But no one seems to care."
Ahmet Biberha, who has worked for seven years at his family's business - Brother's Pizza - just around the corner from the day care where little Nicholas died - said he's seen drug use in the area increase drastically during that time.
"I see them bent over, slumped over, unaware of where they are," the 23-year-old said. "It brings down the business. It brings down the whole area. Now babies are dying!
"Forget about the users - they're grown adults, they made their own decisions. But cut that stuff up near a baby so that they breathe it in? That's ridiculous. If this isn't a wakeup call, I don't know what is," Biberha said.
"I don't know what to say - fentanyl was the worst drug ever created," another local man told The Post. "This might be a worse epidemic than crack. A family should not have to lose their child like this. All they did was bring him to day care."
Additional reporting by Joe Marino and Desheania Andrews