BOISE – When Idaho passed landmark legislation two years ago to require state licensing of day care operations that served fewer than 13 kids, the state’s day care wars didn’t end.
Instead, social conservatives in the Idaho House who opposed the whole idea of day care regulation – including some who said mothers should stay home with their kids – blocked approval of the rules to implement the new law two years running. It took effect anyway under temporary rules.
Now, a compromise between the House and Senate at the close of this year’s legislative session has brought changes to the law that all sides expect to settle the issue, in part by removing maximum group sizes for child care operations and restructuring required staff-child ratios.
State Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said the law is “simple, it’s easy to understand, and it’s easy for people to comply with.”
Broadsword said “those of us in the real world” recognize that in many families, both parents have to work. “It takes two incomes to support a family. So if you’re going to have day cares, you need to have some assurance that they’re in a safe situation,” she said. She worked with state Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, to revamp HB 129 and remove House-backed changes such as not counting kids of providers in staff-child ratios.
Still, even before this year’s law easing the requirements – which takes effect July 1 – Idaho ranked last in the nation for its day care oversight and regulation.
“Just because someone is licensed doesn’t necessarily mean that parents don’t have the responsibility to consider the elements of the program to make sure that it’s a good, safe fit for their child,” said Cathy Kowalski, who operates the Learning Garden Developmental Preschool in Post Falls. “Idaho’s standards are very minimal.”
For example: Under Idaho’s staffing standards, one person could care for six infants at once. “The national standard is 1-to-4,” Kowalski said. Because 16- and 17-year-olds can provide care under an adult’s supervision, it’s conceivable that two caregivers, ages 18 and 16, could care for 12 infants at once. Neither might have first-aid or infant CPR training; Idaho’s law just requires one person on the premises to have that training.
“As consumers, we have a tendency to assume that because the state has a licensing procedure that it’s safe,” Kowalski said. “That is not necessarily the case, especially when you’re dealing with children.”
Other safety measures, from requiring a working telephone on the premises to requiring fences around ponds, pools or hot tubs, still are in effect from the 2009 law.
Also unchanged: requirements for criminal background checks for day care providers who care for as few as four unrelated children, even though those providers aren’t required to be state-licensed. Requiring background checks was the one area where Idaho was rated highly in the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies 2010 report on state day care regulation and oversight.
“We do not operate at the minimum state levels, because they are minimal and they just don’t meet the needs of the children that we serve,” Kowalski said.
Idaho’s law requires one caregiver for every dozen 3- to 5-year-olds. As of July 1, it’ll allow one staffer for every 24 children age 5 and older, up from the current 18.
Kowalski’s center serves youngsters from 2 1/2 to 5 years old, including some with disabilities. She limits it to 14 kids with two teachers, plus a therapist for each child with special needs.
Kowalski said the original bill proposed by House members this year, in her view, would have threatened children’s safety in Idaho by excluding a provider’s children from staffing ratios.
Idaho’s day care licensing law always has counted the children of providers in child-staff ratios; the new bill this year lets cities or counties that have their own licensing laws choose whether to do so.
David Farwell, who with his wife, Barbara, operates Superior Child Care and Learning Center in Sandpoint, said, “I believe that the kids of providers should be counted – a child is a child. I know when my kids were younger and they came here, they were counted.”
Broadsword said of House members, “They kept saying you should be able to have seven kids not counting the ones that you’re related to. … We kept saying, ‘Wait a minute, a woman with six kids of her own, you’re going to give her seven more before she has to be licensed? That’s not safe.’ ”
Farwell said he supported this year’s law change, but he said the original licensing law passed in 2009 hurt his center. Superior Child Care has operated for 28 years and is licensed for up to 99 children, though it typically has about 45 to 50 per day, ranging from 2 to school age.
“The ratio was extremely problematic,” Farwell said. “It was very poorly written.”
Farwell said he used to take toddlers as young as 18 months, but stopped because of the 2009 law. “If we had one 18-month-old in any room, that room ratio became 1:6,” he said. “Now they have a point system, which is what Boise has been using all along, what Moscow’s been using, similar to what Coeur d’Alene has been using.”
The new point system assigns point values to children by age, to help calculate staff-child ratios; a child under 24 months counts as 2 points; those 24 to 36 months are 1.5 points; those age 3 to under 5 are one point; and those 5 and older are half a point. The maximum is 12 points per staffer.
Said Broadsword, “I do think it was a good compromise, that it solves the problem. They’re not all fixed, but it’s safer. If a parent takes their child for licensed day care, they know that there are some safety regulations in place – there’s a telephone on the premises, there’s a fire extinguisher.”
But Idaho still doesn’t license or regulate smaller day care providers, other than the background checks for those caring for four or more unrelated children. Those smaller providers can apply for voluntary state licensing, and more than 80 have done so, said Marian Woods, program manager for family and community services at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. But Health and Welfare has no idea how many unlicensed providers, with fewer than seven kids, still operate in the state.
“I think parents have to be diligent,” Broadsword said, “and really do some research before they drop that precious cargo off at the door.”
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