NEW YORK — Many states are distressingly lax in their regulation and oversight of child-care centers, according to a new nationwide survey which gives its lowest marks to Idaho and Louisiana and its highest grade to the far-flung system run by the U.S. military.
Among the common problems in the states are infrequent inspections, deficient safety requirements and low hiring standards — including lack of full criminal background checks — for center employees.
“State child-care standards and oversight in this nation are not protecting our children and are not preparing them for success in school,” said Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, which was releasing the first-of-its-kind ranking Thursday.
She urged action by Congress and state legislatures. An estimated 12 million children under age 5 are in non-parental child care each week.
Oversight is necessary
The association reviewed policies and regulations for all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Defense Department, which ranked a decisive No. 1 overall and led both subcategories — one measuring standards that are in place, the second measuring how vigorously the standards are enforced.
“Standards are meaningless without oversight,” Smith said. “The Defense Department has good enforcement, and that has brought their program to a much higher level.”
Following the military atop the rankings were Illinois, New York, Maryland, Washington, Oklahoma, Michigan, North Dakota, Tennessee, Minnesota and Vermont.
Idaho ranked last; the next lowest scores were for Louisiana, Nebraska, Kentucky, California and Kansas.
The report, “We Can Do Better,” said eight states do not even require annual inspections of child-care centers, let alone conduct them quarterly as Smith’s association recommends. The association also advises that each inspector have no more than 50 centers to monitor; the report said 21 states have caseloads of more than 140 per inspector.
Regarding staff, the report said 21 states have no minimum educational requirement for child-care teachers; it said only New Jersey and the Defense Department require center directors to have a bachelor’s degree.
The military’s system, which has expanded and improved dramatically over the past 15 years, encompasses more than 740 facilities worldwide with spaces for 184,000 children. Its training and safety standards are considered state-of-the-art.
“We’ve worked hard for a lot of years so service members can do their jobs and not have to worry about their children,” said Barbara Thompson, director of the Pentagon’s children and youth office.
Objection to tougher regulations
Idaho’s low ranking came as no surprise to state Rep. George Sayler, who has been trying unsuccessfully for three years to tighten regulation of child-care centers. Oversight is minimal for Idaho centers with fewer than 13 children; many are not required to be licensed, and employees do not need first-aid training or a high-school degree.
Some conservative legislators object to tougher regulations as “a threat to the family, or a burden on small providers,” Sayler said. “I don’t really hear concern from them about children.”
Louisiana officials also were unsurprised by their low ranking and said they are working hard on an overhaul of child-care licensing requirements that was interrupted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Sherry Guarisco, director of child care for the state’s Department of Social Services. “But I think that when the next report comes out, we’ll see a much different standing for Louisiana.”
‘Simple steps’ can help
Louisiana will soon join about a dozen other states that have established rating systems for child-care centers. In California, a bill to create such a system was introduced in the legislature this week by Assemblyman John Benoit, who evoked the 2004 drowning of a toddler at a licensed day-care facility in Riverside, Calif.
The new report said elected officials could take “simple steps” to ease the worst problems.
It said Congress should require fingerprint checks and basic training for all paid day-care workers as a condition for states to receive federal child-care funds. It urged states to improve staff-child ratios and require centers to meet basic health and safety standards.
“States are making this harder than they need to,” said Linda Smith. “If they just do the basics, they can fix a lot of the problems.”
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