Policing Day-Care Providers : Children: Parents would monitor family child-care homes under a state budget-slashing proposal. So far, the plan has many foes, few backers.


Carol Stevenson has an excellent relationship with her daughter’s day-care provider, but she can’t imagine doing what the state may ask her to do under a budget-cutting proposal: become the official monitor of her child’s family day care.

That means checking under the woman’s sink for poisons, grilling her about whether she keeps guns and making sure smoke detectors are placed properly and functioning.

“A lot of parents may not think to say, ‘I love the way you interact with kids, but do you have guns, and are they locked away and can I look under your sink?’ ” said Stevenson, acting executive director of the Child Care Law Center in San Francisco. “I love my daughter’s provider and we have a good rapport, but it would be extremely uncomfortable to ask to do that.”

In response to California’s dire financial straits, the office responsible for licensing and monitoring day-care facilities--the Community Care Licensing Division of the state Department of Social Services--is floating a trio of proposals that would eliminate about 122 positions and save an estimated $5.8 million.


Fred Miller, deputy director of the division, said he is proposing to:

* Exempt public agencies (such as schools and parks and recreation departments) with day-care programs from state licensing. (Estimated savings: $1.2 million.)

* Reduce from 17 to 4 the number of child-care ombudsmen, who function as intermediaries among providers, parents and licensing officials. (Estimated savings: $1.1 million.)

* Deregulate the licensing of family day care (where providers take six or fewer children into their homes). About one-third of California children in licensed day care (about 240,000) are in such settings. (Estimated savings: $3.5 million).


There is also talk of imposing license application fees--from $100 to $300 for day-care centers and $25 or $50 for family homes.

All of these proposals would require legislative approval, but so far no legislator has agreed to sponsor the changes.

None of the proposals are palatable to child-care advocates, but the one generating the most controversy is the deregulation of family day-care licensing. State inspectors would no longer visit homes to ensure compliance with health and safety standards. Random, unannounced visits would be eliminated, as would license-renewal visits (once every three years).

Instead, providers applying for licenses would state, under penalty of having their licenses revoked, that their homes are safe for children. And parents would essentially be deputized by the state to make sure the facilities are safe. The state would continue to check for criminal or child-abuse histories and require that providers be free of tuberculosis.


“There are certainly arguments on both sides,” said Miller. “I really believe if we could get the parents just a little more involved in the monitoring of facilities it would be a better system. The fact that we issue a license to a family day-care home and reinspect it every three years lays out a false sense of security.”

In addition to allowing providers to certify themselves, Miller has proposed that they be required to give parents a form outlining health and safety requirements. Parents would be told that they have the right to question any part of the operation and that complaints to the licensing office would be investigated within 10 days.

Child-care advocates, however, say even the most vigilant parent cannot replace an inspector, and that family homes should be treated the same as day-care centers, which will continue to undergo inspections.

“We think the initial site visit is important because it says to people that the state of California does care what happens in your home or center,” said Patty Siegel, executive director of the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. “Eliminating that gives the sense that this is not very important. In an era of high unemployment, when people are desperate to make a living, people will not necessarily self-certify in a totally honest way.


“Parents want to make the best decision for their children, but the fact is it is not a buyers’ market for child care. So if you have a baby and you are desperate to find a slot and you have a job that starts in a week and a half, just how many drawers are you going to ask to have opened, how many plugs are you going to look for?”

Kathleen Malaske-Samu, child-care coordinator for Los Angeles County, said parents should not be saddled with such a responsibility. “Understanding child care is a complex process,” she said. “You can be misled by a clean and orderly environment. If you are using child care because you have to work, you will not be able to do a lot of spot-checking, either.”

But, said Jo Frederick, chief legislative coordinator for the state Department of Social Services, “What are the chances of our finding something once every three years, versus a parent who is there every day? Parents understand what they are supposed to be looking at. They are the better judge and should have the responsibility for their children.”

The other two cuts--in the ombudsman program and the licensing exemptions for day-care sites operated by public agencies--are troubling to child advocates for different reasons.


Andrea King, a manager of Child Care Resource Center of the San Fernando Valley, said the Los Angeles region’s two ombudsmen have been invaluable in helping providers understand licensing regulations and in mediating conflicts among parents, providers and the state. She said the program has been so successful that other states look to it as a model.

Frederick agreed: “Frankly, it is a great program. We just simply can’t afford it anymore.”

Patsy Lane, child-care coordinator for the city of Los Angeles, said that a child-care program operated by a public agency would no longer have any state-mandated regulations at all.

“Theoretically,” said Lane, “they could do anything they want.”


Also, she said, “From a city management perspective, state licensing will be passing on a responsibility without passing on any dollars.”

In the meantime, Frederick has the unenviable job of trying to find legislators to sponsor the proposed changes. Any effort that can be construed as making child care less safe is bound to have trouble finding backers. Already, 17 of the 21 members of the Women’s Caucus of the California Legislature have stated their opposition to the plan. Gov. Pete Wilson has yet to endorse or reject the proposals.

His cabinet-level children’s advocate, Maureen Di Marco, secretary of the newly created Office of Child Development, has remained silent on the proposed changes.

Even though the cutbacks are still in the proposal stage, the child-care community is gearing for a fight. Sherry Skelly of the California Children’s Lobby in Sacramento has polled the counties of Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno and Sacramento, comparing regulations for the licensing of kennels, restaurants and family day-care homes.


Restaurants in all counties are inspected at least twice a year (by state mandate) and kennels in most counties are inspected twice a year (in Los Angeles, kennels are inspected annually; restaurants are inspected three times a year).

“The rationale for the inspection of dog kennels is that society has an interest in curbing and preventing inhumane practices, that society expects it,” said Skelly. “I am not sure why we are even debating whether or not kids have the same rights.”