Matthew Perilli flirted with strangers on the bus, loved his sweet potatoes and rarely got sick. "He was only a little over 6 months old," his parents, Vincent and Maria Perilli, would later say, "but his smile could light up a room." On Aug. 11, the Perillis, who both work in banks in New York City, dropped their only child at a Queens daycare provider. By that afternoon, he was dead—crushed under stuffed animals and toys that police say two unsupervised toddlers piled on top of him. "I don't know if anyone can describe what they're going through," says Brian Raum, the attorney representing Matthew's parents. "It is unimaginable."

The tragedy has cast a pall over New York City's vast network of daycare centers—and the bureaucracy intended to keep them safe. About an hour before Matthew died, city inspectors had visited Devlin Daycare, run by Heather Zlotshewer, to investigate charges the facility was unlicensed. According to health commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden, while there, they reported hearing "a lot of noise" from an upstairs bedroom where the baby had been left in a crib. They sent her up to investigate, but didn't go themselves since they believed they lacked the authority. Only later did Zlotshewer, 34, discover Matthew unconscious and—without calling 911—take him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. "We will never know whether we could have prevented this tragedy," says commissioner Frieden, "but we could have done our job much better."

Few would dispute that. Because of an antiquated reporting system, the Perillis did not know if there were previous complaints against Zlotshewer, who neighbors say looked after as many as eight young children alone (state regulations require one adult for every two infants in daycare). Frieden has ordered an overhaul of the city's daycare program, and the Queens district attorney is weighing criminal charges—but all that is too little, too late for the Perillis. "Every day Vincent and Maria struggle to make sense of their loss," said their lawyer in a statement, "and wonder how they will come to terms with it. They only know that he will forever be missed."