Placing a kid in day care can be a gamble anywhere.
But Idaho is fast becoming the Las Vegas of child care.
Regulations are few. Inspections are infrequent. State records serve day-care owners more than parents.
Now a population boom has the Panhandle riding a bull market in child care. Idaho’s get-to-work approach to welfare reform is expected to create even greater demand.
Parents, regional child-care experts, day-care owners and some social workers now fear this day-care explosion will put children’s safety at risk.
The problem, they contend, is that in Idaho, almost anyone can start a day care.
“Basically, you need to be 18 and free of tuberculosis,” said a disgusted Carol Lindsay, who teaches child-care courses at North Idaho College. “I see a situation that’s actually fairly desperate.”
The Panhandle has dozens of quality day cares. Some offer accredited care for children. One Spokane social worker even recommends a few North Idaho day cares over those in Washington where rules are more strict.
But horror stories in Idaho are as common as broken toys.
Tasha McCune, a receptionist at a Rathdrum real estate company, once found bumps on her 10-month-old daughter’s head while washing her hair. The girl had tumbled down a full flight of stairs at day care, McCune said.
Hairdresser Dawn Yost yanked her 3-year-old from a Coeur d’Alene day care. Her provider refused to feed kids when they made her mad, Yost said.
Post Falls mother Chris Greenfield said she walked into a day-care center several years ago to find her preschool-age son locked alone in a room with bars on one wall.
Little regulation exists to prevent such situations. There are virtually no prerequisites to open a day care, and almost no punishment for rule-breakers. A lone state inspector tracks all 108 of the Panhandle’s registered day cares, but has limited enforcement power.
New employees at established centers frequently start work without required FBI background checks.
Many day-care owners who are required to get a license don’t bother to obtain one.
Even with new laws, one licensed worker still can care for more kids in Idaho than in any other state.
And parents who wish to investigate a day care’s track record face a bureaucratic blockade that does more to protect providers than inform the public. In fact, consumers in Idaho have more access to complaints about restaurants than about the people who care for children.
While even unfounded restaurant complaints are open to inspection, Idaho Health and Welfare officials black out names on reports that accuse day-care workers of abuse or inappropriate behavior.
They fear reprisals from day-care owners if complaints prove invalid.
If the allegations are found to be true, details of the complaint still remain sealed. Officials cite confidentiality laws.
A review of four years of state records, and interviews with a dozen established day-care owners, reveal a troubling picture of some day cares.
One day-care worker was accused of taping a child’s mouth shut for most of a day. Another was accused of forcing a child who wet his pants to stand naked before the class.
Another worker was accused of washing a child’s mouth out with soap containing poisonous lye. One child was sent home with a broken collar bone, which day-care workers apparently hadn’t noticed.
While similar accusations might be found in other states, Idaho parents can’t see which day cares are the subject of these complaints.
Yet in Idaho, more than in most states, legislators place responsibility for choosing a good day care squarely on parents.
“I do not believe, nor do I think the majority of the Idaho Legislature truly believes, that it takes a village to raise a child,” said Sen. Gordon Crow, R-Coeur d’Alene. “I believe it takes parents to raise a child.”
Crow, who has a child in day care, was shocked to learn that details of serious child-care complaints were kept from the public.
But he would not commit to pushing for change without more proof of problems. He feared open records could harm day-care owners.
“I believe parents should make decisions based on the information they are given,” he said.
Legislators also take cues from state workers who insist children are safe.
“I’m not aware of any licensed day care where parents would have any fear of their children being abused,” said Dennis Coe, who works in child care for Health and Welfare.
But Cheryl Stafford, who founded an area day-care association that pushes to improve the quality of care, wonders how parents would ever know if their kids were in danger.
“When the records are hidden and there’s nobody regularly checking on us, it’s always going to look like there’s no problem,” she said.
Resistant to change
For years, Idaho legislators have resisted efforts to bolster day care rules or give Health and Welfare any serious enforcement authority.
It would add another layer of bureaucracy, cost more money, and could prove intrusive in family decisions, legislators say.
Currently, the state requires four hours of training a year, a health inspection and a fire inspection, and only performs surprise checks after receiving a complaint. Not until 1994 did the state require that workers receive CPR and first aid training.
“(Other legislators) wanted me to produce bleeding babies before they were interested in even talking about CPR,” said Barbara Chamberlain, a Democratic ex-legislator and childcare reform advocate.
The state started requiring FBI background checks for day-care owners only after a California child molester opened a center in Coeur d’Alene in the mid-1980s.
In 1994, the Legislature added background checks for day-care employees and all residents of in-home care centers after another child was molested in a Boise day care.
Legislators recently reduced the number of infants a single licensed day-care worker can care for from 12 to six. But they increased the number of school-age kids a single worker can care for from 12 to 18.
Idaho adults also can care for up to six children and not even get a license.
Slow to investigate
In recent years, parents have filed complaints accusing day cares of everything from inattentiveness, to verbal abuse, to having too few workers or using questionable disciplinary tactics. Unless a child is in immediate danger, the state typically investigates several days later.
As a result, inquiries frequently prove inconclusive, state workers admit. And when that happens, investigators still declare complaints invalid and seal the records. The public never learns an issue was raised.
“It’s pretty common for people to complain after having a dispute over a bill or something,” Coe said. “Most complaints sound worse to begin with than they are when you go out there.”
Investigators also limit what they inspect.
“If we see wires sticking out of the walls, we’ll note that, but we won’t go looking through the refrigerator,” said Rob Gregory, Health and Welfare’s program manager for child care. “That’s not what we’re there for.”
National organizations chide Idaho’s commitment to child care.
For the second straight year, Working Mother magazine this summer ranked Idaho among the three worst states for pre-school care.
The Children’s Defense Fund points out that in 1994, only Mississippi and South Dakota spent less than Idaho’s $18.80 in tax money per child on preschool care and education. Idaho spent 141 times that on highways.
Neighboring Washington, meanwhile, spends nearly five times what Idaho spends per child.
Some thrifty Idaho legislators see that as a point of pride.
“Washington outregulates us across the board,” said Crow.
Washington also performs more frequent surprise inspections, cracks down harder on rule-breakers and offers the public more access to its investigation records.
In Washington, most people caring for more than two children need a license. A single licensed day-care worker can care for only two babies. One worker may watch eight to 10 school-age kids, depending on experience and education.
Between 1994 and 1996, Washington shut down or encouraged more than two dozen dangerous day cares to close their doors. Idaho officials can’t recall when they last closed a day care.
When a complaint is filed in Washington - whether it alleges abuse or too many kids - investigators conduct a thorough review. They may interview children. They may look through the refrigerator.
If the results are inconclusive, social workers write a report that remains open to inspection. Only if it is deemed bogus are details withheld. But even then, parents can at least find out a complaint was lodged.
Unlike Idaho, Washington officials may even demand a day care explain a series of complaints found to be inconclusive.
“We don’t look at things in isolation,” said Lee Williams, a regulator for Washington’s Office of Child Care Policy. “We look for patterns of behavior. Four inconclusive complaints? We could require a corrective action based on the fact that there’s a pattern there.”
Some earn rave reviews
Many Idaho day cares offer care well beyond what the state requires. Some earn raves across the region.
But even the operators of these day cares say more regulation is needed to protect children and their industry’s image.
“A license should mean something,” said day care owner Peggy Wright. “Now, it doesn’t mean a thing.”
Kathy Thamm, the director of a Washington referral network, points out North Idaho has more day cares that are accredited by state and national child-care organizations than does Spokane.
She’s also quick to applaud people like Stafford, who establish their own organizations.
“If I knew my child-care provider was in one of those associations, I’d feel secure,” Thamm said.
Stafford’s association is made up of 23 North Idaho day-care owners.
They hold monthly meetings, sponsor continuing education, offer CPR training and host workshops on everything from handling behavioral problems to teaching art and ABCs.
They even encourage unlicensed day-care owners to get licensed - whether it’s required or not.
But providers like Stafford fear Idaho’s regulatory system promotes inferior day cares that are harmful to children and give the whole industry a black eye.
Some parents agree. After her experience, Chris Greenfield was so frightened she abandoned day care altogether.
“I ended up leaving my son at home alone with two young girls because I felt I couldn’t trust anybody else,” she said.
Legislators fear the cost of any changes might drive some day cares out of business. Providers hope they’re right.
“I say ‘yeah, it probably will, and that’s OK,”’ said Lindsay, at NIC.
It’s not that they want to weed out competition. Most already have waiting lists.
Parents point out that licensed, well-maintained day cares frequently aren’t more expensive.
Full-time day care for one child now averages $15 to $18 per day, or about $400 a month.
After McCune’s baby fell down the steps, she meticulously inspected other day cares. Frequently, she came away crying.
“They were dirty, and they charged as much as anybody else,” said McCune. “You might save $3 or $5 a day. I would rather pay a lot more money for the safety of my daughter.”
Her daughter now happily attends Rising Star Childcare in Hayden Lake.
Fabric store owner Kim Ulvan took her child out of day care when the provider’s home grew ripe with the stench of diapers and leftover food.
“I could tell my kids were getting loved,” Ulvan said, through tears. “But I just couldn’t take the filth. It even smelled dirty.”
She, too, since has found a new day care she’s happy with - at a comparable price.
Welfare reform means changes
Two months after the advent of welfare reform, public agencies are considering minor changes to improve day care.
Health and Welfare is offering $90,000 in grants to North Idaho day care operators who wish to improve the quality of care. Panhandle Health District is considering a voluntary rating system, based on a provider’s level of education in the field of child care.
Social workers also expect to see an increase in day cares hoping to serve low-income families. Those day cares must pass another government inspection before collecting public subsidies.
But other problems may persist as the number of day cares grows.
The Panhandle has added 26 licensed day cares since early 1996. Currently, 10 more are awaiting approval.
But there’s no indication the Legislature intends to beef up manpower or inspections.
Privately, that has some social workers fearing the worst.
“Two years from now, I’m afraid we’re going to see a whole universe of problems,” one child care regulator said.
In addition, some experts fear the minimal training requirements, and the push to have former welfare recipients start day cares could make for an explosive cocktail.
“A lot of people think day care is easy, that it’s about sitting around watching TV,” said day-care owner Roni Moore. “Not at all.”
Stafford and other day-care associations intend to keep pushing for more regulation.
Resource and referral agencies, like Panhandle Health District, also will continue to urge parents to investigate child care.
“It is really ironic that people spend far more time investigating the sale of a car or a home or long distance telephone service,” said NIC’s Lindsay. “But part of the problem is people are forced into accepting mediocrity. Or worse.”
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