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A pilot program that would have increased the number of inspections of child care centers in nine Mississippi counties, comprising one health district, has been suspended indefinitely as the state Department of Health reviews alternate options, according to an email sent to child care providers last week.

The state is exploring ways to increase the number of inspections for child care centers, like this one in Jackson, statewide. Credit: Jackie Mader

The increase in visits was meant to “ensure licensing rules and regulations were being met and that our children were safe in their childcare environments,” according to the email from Jim Craig, director of the Office of Health Protection. After reviewing the plan for the pilot program, Craig wrote that he had “some questions and concerns” and indicated the state wanted to look at a “different approach” to the increased visits.

Craig told the Hechinger Report in a written statement that the state remains committed to conducting four inspections per year “where appropriate.” He added that child care facilities that are not open year round may be visited less frequently.

“We felt the pilot needed more of a statewide approach, and that it was not specific in providing or connecting providers with appropriate technical assistance to further compliance,” Craig said.

This year, the state Department of Health received an additional $1 million from the Mississippi Department of Human Services to improve oversight of child care centers, decrease caseloads for inspectors, and create a unit to handle complaint investigations. The additional funds increased the health department’s budget by 50 percent from fiscal year 2016, to a total of $3 million.

Related: Mississippi to increase oversight of child care centers

A January announcement about the new pilot program said the department “is expanding the inspection schedule” to help it “meet the national benchmark that recommends four (4) inspections a year for licensed child care programs.”

Mississippi law requires the health department to inspect centers once annually, but regulations state that centers are “subject to inspection at any time at the discretion of the licensing agency.” Currently, the state attempts to make two visits each year. The pilot would have increased inspections immediately in one health district, mostly in the Delta, before rolling out statewide by July.

An 18-month investigation by The Hechinger Report and The Clarion-Ledger found Mississippi’s child care system struggles with low levels of funding and little support for centers that fail to meet state regulations. Child care workers are paid poorly and turnover is high. In a 2013 national rating by Child Care Aware, a nonprofit that tracks state child care policies, Mississippi received an F, due in part to its failure to post inspection reports online for parents and its low education standards for child care center employees.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in Mississippi.

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