25 Investigates: Toddler badly burned in day care fire when COVID-19 paused in-person inspections

OXFORD, Mass. — After an 18-month-old suffered life-threatening burns in a fire at a state-licensed home day care in Oxford, 25 Investigates began examining the circumstances leading up to the early January tragedy.

Nearly six months later, 25 Investigates has learned a criminal probe is underway and that state regulators had not visited the facility in person in nearly a year, despite a history of violations that date back to at least 2016.

Through a public records request, which involved a months-long back-and-forth with the agency, 25 Investigates obtained the Department of Early Education and Care’s [EEC] investigative report into the January 4th fire. EEC is the state agency responsible for enforcing health and safety standards at licensed child care facilities.

Investigators have not revealed what sparked the fire, but the documents indicate matches and other hazardous items were found in the room where the toddler, Dylan Butler, was napping when the fire broke out. Dylan suffered second- and third-degree burns from his lower back to his ankles and on his hands.

25 Investigates learned that EEC inspectors stopped visiting the Oxford day care and others across the state in mid-March of last year due to COVID-19 concerns, potentially leaving many children at risk. Instead, the state has been relying on telephone calls and scheduled video chats.

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Investigator reporter Ted Daniel spoke exclusively to Dylan’s family about their search for answers.

“He’s a happy, happy boy. He’s definitely our little hero,” said Yolanda Butler, Dylan’s paternal grandmother.

She said Dylan spent two months at Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston and was kept in a medically-induced coma for a month to allow doctors to begin skin grafts.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through that. Every time you close your eyes, it’s something you still see,” said the Wareham grandmother.

According to Butler, Dylan’s mother enrolled him at the Oxford home day care so she could attend classes at a nearby college. He’d only been there for about four months before the fire.

The day care is owned and operated by 64-year-old Denise Blevins.

The 23-page report filed with EEC said Dylan was alone, napping in a pack-and-play in a bedroom when smoke alarms in the home sounded.

Instead of immediately evacuating the five children in her care, the report said Blevins checked her kitchen stove and then a pellet stove in the living room. Then “while she was turning the corner to enter the playroom, she saw smoke coming out of the licensed bedroom.”

Blevins went on to tell a licensed day care coordinator that she “...opened the door and saw the baby on fire.”

The EEC report shows there “was a box of multiple books of matches with clothes on top of them” in a shopping basket next to the pack-and-play.

“The provider was asked why she would keep matches accessible to children...especially because...she has a history of leaving hazardous things out in the open,” the report reads.

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State investigators also reported finding, “cigarettes, prescription medicine, cleaning supplies, an Airsoft gun, alcohol (jars labeled moonshine), pocketknives, oxygen tanks, a pillbox container with unknown pills, and multiple adult-sized scissors [that] were not secured in a manner that posed no risk to children,” records show.

“I have a lot of anger. I mean, there’s going to be anger. But we’re more concerned and focused on Dylan and getting him healthy,” said Martha Holmes, Dylan’s aunt. “It’s so hard to watch them have to hold him down to change his bandages. He can’t go into the pool. He can’t go in there with his skin grafts. I mean, he’s 2 years old.”

Among the violations Blevins had previously been cited for include indoor space hazards in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and having charcoal and lighter fluid accessible to children outdoors in 2016, according to the documents. In 2015, the reports show she, “was required to meet with EEC Licensing Staff relevant to ongoing indoor health and safety hazards...”

Those hazards were found during in-person inspections of the day care, where an EEC licensor would show up at the property and look around. But, due to policy changes to day care visits during COVID, the only inspections that occurred during the four months Dylan was at the day care were done by phone or Zoom, 25 Investigates learned.

“I’m not sure how much you can see during a Zoom call,” Holmes said.

“These are our children. They’re defenseless. You have to be in there, eyes on them,” said Dylan’s grandmother, Yolanda. “They have, you know, to go into these day cares. You have to look, because [toddlers] can’t talk.”

An EEC spokesperson told 25 Investigates the last in-person visit to Blevins’ home day care took place on January 24, 2020. When asked when in-person inspections would resume at day cares statewide, the spokesperson said that’s scheduled to happen this month.

25 Investigates attempted to contact Blevins. Our crew visited her Oxford home. No one responded when we knocked, but a man we saw entering said he’d get a message to her. We also left a voicemail on a phone number found through a public records search. Blevins never responded.

According to EEC, she voluntarily surrendered her license to operate a day care in March.

The Worcester County District Attorney’s Office is also investigating the fire. A spokesperson told 25 Investigates they investigate all fires of suspicious origin.

Dylan requires daily physical therapy and will need to undergo skin grafts twice a year until he stops growing.

“Sometimes at night, he does wake up crying. We don’t know why. We just comfort him,” Butler said.

Though the family is short on answers about the cause of the January 4th fire, they have plenty of support from the community. They have created a Facebook page documenting his progress and have set up a GoFundMe page to help with his medical care.

Parents can look up licensed child care programs and check the history and safety record on the EEC website by clicking here.