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Playing With Child Care : State and federal officials whittle away at health and safety protections

After years during which nary a word was heard about child care from state and federal officials, there is now lots of attention being paid to the millions of children in child care. In theory, that’s good. But the kind of attention that children are getting in Sacramento and Washington may not be in their best interests.

The number of children with mothers working outside the home has grown dramatically in recent decades, from 29% of all U.S. children younger than 6 in 1970 to 51% in 1988. But the number of safe, reliable and affordable child-care facilities has not kept pace with this burgeoning demand. Too often parents find long waiting lists instead of a spot for their child, and one recent estimate held that 42% of children from kindergarten through third grade are left alone to care for themselves occasionally, if not regularly.

Support for a stronger federal presence in the area of child care has been growing, and last year President Bush and Congress appropriated $1.3 billion to expand and upgrade the range of child care available to low-income families.

Passage of these appropriations was hailed as a major victory for American children. Then the federal Department of Health and Human Services went to work on the regulations to put the legislation into effect. After the regulations were drawn up, it was apparent that the intent of the law was being lost.

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Congress clearly meant to upgrade the quality of child-care services. Yet the regulations--some of which are tentatively in effect--now tightly restrict the ability of states to impose additional basic health and safety standards on child-care providers. That’s no victory for children.

If implemented in their current form, the federal regulations could have a particularly negative impact in California. As part of its effort to meet mandated, across-the-board budget cuts, the California state office that licenses and monitors day-care facilities proposed last week to cut $5.8 million by relaxing its licensing and inspection requirements for family day-care providers. That’s a potentially dangerous shortcut. But the federal regulations would permit these shortsighted changes proposed by the state.

The federal government is going to re-examine its regulations in light of widespread, negative public comments. Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature would have to agree to the proposed cuts in California’s licensing program before they could take effect. Let’s hope that when state and federal officials sit down to think about child care, they take no shortcuts in providing for the health and welfare of America’s children.


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