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Minimum child care standards still elusive

Wed., April 5, 2006

BOISE – It was supposed to happen. After more than a decade of fighting for statewide minimum standards for child care centers, this was supposed to be the year that all sides came together and found common ground.

Standards were implemented in Coeur d’Alene in January, and proponents said the years of debate over statewide standards were to have finally yielded a solution.

But it didn’t happen.

“I’m still in a state of shock that it’s not gone anywhere,” said Coeur d’Alene resident Iris Siegler, a child care provider and longtime advocate of statewide standards. “I don’t know what we have to do or what horrible atrocity has to happen before anything takes place.”

Coeur d’Alene Democrat Rep. George Sayler, who’s been a strong advocate of child care standards, said he thought the bill he drafted this session addressed everyone’s concerns, but the number of opponents who turned out for the hearing in the House Health and Welfare Committee showed him otherwise.

He decided to skip the hearing and work further on the bill this summer and, pending the outcome of the November election, try again next year.

“Rather than have it die again, we tried to work out a compromise, which we thought we had done,” Sayler said. “But it was getting late in the session, and there were still objections and concerns.”

Proponents of day care standards are very disappointed, even devastated.

“I am extremely disappointed in our legislators that we can’t get something like this passed,” Siegler said. “Too many years have gone by. It’s like ‘OK, I thought this really was the year.’ “

Sayler’s bill, HB 806, called for background checks on all child care center workers, increased training, notification of the presence of sex offenders and lower staff-to-child ratios for children under 2. Smoking and alcohol consumption during operating hours also would be prohibited, and, among other things, firearms and weapons storage would be regulated.

Child care centers that care for 13 or more children are currently held to such standards, but any center with less than 13 children is regulation-free.

Minimum child care standards have long been opposed by some from rural areas, who say additional requirements would be too burdensome and expensive and would hinder things like someone’s ability to watch their neighbor’s children.

Until such concerns are satisfied, day care legislation will be controversial, said Rep. Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, chairwoman of the House Health and Welfare Committee.

“We’ll just keep working on it,” she said.

Block said the regulations proposed may be fine for larger centers in urban areas, but many people in rural areas rely on friends to care for their children when needed, friends who “might not be able to meet all these requirements, then there will be nobody to take care of the child.

“We certainly don’t want to leave children without care, because that can happen. We can get latchkey children … That certainly is not acceptable,” she said.

Sayler said the opposition is unfounded.

He said current exceptions for relative care or occasional care will still be available, and the new standards would only apply to someone caring for two or more unrelated children, making it likely that the care offered in rural areas could be largely unaffected.

Deb Danforth, who runs Little Folks Preschool and Kindergarten in Coeur d’Alene, said the proposed minimum standards are just that – minimum.

“For crying out loud, you can’t even get your hair cut without passing state boards,” she said.

A friend in Washington state, where statewide child care standards are in place, has access to licensing applications of those interested in child care, and she said the list of crimes some applicants had on their records “was unreal,” Danforth said.

If that still happens in a state that requires backgrounds checks, it’s frightening to think of what could be happening in a state with no such requirements, Danforth said.

She said she knows the vast majority of child care providers in Idaho pose no risk to children “but we don’t really know because we’re not background checking them all.”

“It just needs to fly,” she said. “It’s really not that difficult to comply with, and it’s worth it for the children.”

Block said she has seen considerable progress made between the legislation’s proponents and opponents and is hopeful something can be worked out over the summer to satisfy everyone.

“I think we need standards, but I think we need to work it out so that both rural and urban wishes can be met,” Block said.


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