KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- The owner of a Knoxville daycare owner Friday morning appeared before a Knox County Judge.
Babysitter arrested on homicide charges in relation to twins' deaths (Knox County Sheriff's Office)
A grand jury indicted Jennifer Salley, the owner of OM Baby childcare, on two counts of criminally negligent homicide after the toddlers died in the facility's West Knoxville pool in the summer of 2018.
Salley was expected to appear in court on January 23, but only her lawyer was present. Her lawyer alleged that Salley is living out of state because the community "got pretty upset" with her, and that she faced "vandalism" and "threats online."
State prosecutors pointed out that neither they nor the court waived Salley's presence in court.
Salley's lawyer said that Salley faced financial difficulties in appearing in court in Knox County. "If you told me to bring her next week, I'd have her here," the lawyer said.
"I do want to see her in here," the judge said.
The judge set an appearance for January 31 and motions for February 13.
WVLT broke the story on Tuesday, June 11, after Jennifer Salley turned herself in and then posted a $50,000 bond.
The week before, WVLT News Anchor Amanda Hara asked Knox County District Attorney's Office Public Information Officer Sean McDermott whether a criminal investigation was opened against Salley, who was found to be operating an illegal daycare when Elijah and Elyssa Orejuela drowned. McDermott said, "I cannot comment on pending investigations."
McDermott's statement came one day after WVLT broke the news that the toddlers' parents filed a federal lawsuit against Jennifer Salley for damages.
The parents' lawyer, Wayne A. Ritchie II, released a statement to WVLT News Anchor Amanda Hara.
"Those who care for children have a responsibility that cannot be shirked. The pain and terror these children endured as they lost their lives haunts these parents, as it would any parent. The family hopes this case brings accountability and prevents other families from having to endure such a tragedy.”
Elijah and Elyssa Orejuela were found in the pool of Jennifer Salley's West Knoxville daycare July 20, 2018, while their parents were at work.
On July 20, 2018, deputies with the Knox County Sheriff's Office responded to the home of Jennifer Salley on Fox Lonas Drive. Twins Elijah and Elyssa Orejuela were pulled from the deep end of Salley's pool. Both died.
Salley had been the twins' caretaker and had operated a daycare called Om Baby out of a residence since 2015, according to investigators. At the time of the drownings, Salley's own two children were in the custody of family members.
Now, the parents of the twins, Enrique Orejuela and Amelia Wieand, have filed a federal lawsuit against Salley. In the suit, the parents claim that unsafe conditions and Salley's lack of supervision led to the twins' deaths. The twins were unsupervised for so long, the suit said, that they managed to leave a bedroom, then the house, before getting into a pool. The suit is asking for $17.48 million in compensatory damages. Salley has a hearing in this case on June 12.
Salley had a troubled history. Just two months before the twins drowned, investigators told her to stop operating her daycare without a license. State officials said she had been advertising on Care.com as a licensed daycare provider when she had no license.
The parents of the twins said they had found Salley on a Care.com advertisement. Amelia told WVLT News that she thought the website provided background checks on all caregiver candidates. On top of that, "One of the other parents was a police officer, and one was a physician ... I would think if they entrusted their care with her, I definitely didn’t see any red flags with that," she said.
Salley has since relocated to Houston, Texas.
The Tennessee Attorney General's Office is now working with Care.com to stop the advertisement of unlicensed and deceptive daycare facilities; however, the AG's office did not point to any one particular infant death or deaths as for reason behind the initiative.
The parents of the twins hoped that they would be remembered in spite of their deaths. "As a mother, you love your children, but when other people love your children, it makes you feel even better that it was more than just you -that the community loved them just as much," Amelia said.
The Tennessee Department of Human Services provides dozens of resources for parents when choosing a daycare. Learn more here.
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