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child care regulations
A child rides a bike on the playground at Global Connections Learning Center in Jackson. Credit: Jackie Mader

This article is the eighth in a series investigating the child care system in Mississippi.

Imagine your child is hurt at daycare. You call the state agency in charge of daycare centers to ask someone with authority to investigate. What happens next depends on where you live, according to responses to a survey of child care oversight agencies by The Hechinger Report.

Four states reported that officials have 48 hours to begin looking into any complaint, everything from reports of technical rule violations to allegations of neglect or abuse. In at least 22 states, the agency will start an investigation within two days if it deems the conduct alleged in the complaint is severe. For complaints that are less serious, an investigative window of from three days to 60 days is allowed.

Written policies in at least 13 states permit more than 48 hours to begin investigating even the most egregious complaints. In Minnesota, for example, officials have 60 days to investigate complaints of maltreatment. North Carolina has no specific time frame for how quickly an investigation must be conducted.

Thorough, responsive oversight of child care centers can mean the difference between ensuring kids are safe and healthy or in danger. But, according to the Hechinger Report survey and similar research by national nonprofits, child care oversight rules vary across the nation — and states with strict rules governing child care are the exception.

Related: Child Care Crisis: State’s weak oversight puts children in harm’s way in Mississippi

Based on survey and research results, it’s clear that Mississippi is not alone as it struggles to improve conditions in its child care system. And the state’s child care problems are serious: A joint Clarion Ledger and Hechinger Report investigation of 393 Mississippi daycare centers revealed a weakly regulated system that perpetuates dangerous conditions for babies and young children by failing to hold centers to minimum standards or help them improve.

“We’ve come a long way in recognizing the importance of early years but we haven’t put our money where our mouth is.”

Reports by the nonprofit group Child Care Aware have repeatedly found that most states lack high standards for child care centers and oversight of these centers is poor. In 2013, the Department of Defense earned a B — the highest grade awarded — on the group’s child care system evaluation; 10 states received a C; twenty states got a D, and 20 failed.

The overall state of child care in the country is “shameful,” said Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning for the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center. “We’ve come a long way in recognizing the importance of early years but we haven’t put our money where our mouth is.”

Some 11 million U.S. children under the age of 5 are enrolled in child care, including 1 million in Head Start, the federally regulated school readiness program for low-income children. But despite the large number of children it serves, the child care industry is largely a collection of private providers, regulated by the states and held to a diverse set of standards.

Often, state systems that oversee daycare centers are underfunded and child care centers don’t receive the financial help they say they need to make improvements in quality. Daycare centers are no longer just expected to keep kids safe during the day, they are now also expected to prepare their charges for school by encouraging activities that promote brain development and social skills — which requires more educational supplies and materials.

“With infants and toddlers, the brain is rapidly developing, learning, engaging,” said Michelle McCready of Child Care Aware. Early childhood is “a critical time to set children on a path to life-long success.”

Ironically, over 40 years ago, as mothers increasingly joined the work force, a bill that would have created a federally-funded universal child care system and established national standards for centers — essentially expanding Head Start to all kids — passed both houses of Congress. It was vetoed by then President Nixon — and child care has remained in private hands and subject to often widely variable state oversight.

Related: The race problem in Mississippi daycares

The Hechinger Report survey revealed that the rules regulating child care, including the frequency of inspections and how violations are treated, differ significantly from state to state, and in many cases don’t meet the standards advocates say are necessary to keep children safe and help them learn. Differences among the 42 states that responded to part or all of the survey included:

  • Inspection frequency: Two states require inspection visits every 18 months or once every two years; California mandates visits once every five years; 19 states make annual inspections; 10 states require inspection visits twice a year; three states perform inspection visits three times a year; in six states the number of visits needed varies depending on factors such as the center’s quality or how many children it serves.
  • Complaint investigations: In addition to variations in policies on how quickly a state agency must investigate egregious complaints, the threshold of what is considered severe also differs from state to state. In Delaware, a report of improper discipline may require an immediate inspection, which must be started within one business day. California officials have two days after a “questionable death” is reported at a center to visit it. Any other complaint must be investigated within 10 days
  • Fines: 26 states fine centers for violations; 16 states don’t, instead relying on measures like corrective action plans.
  • Minimum penalties: In Mississippi, a center in which adults are supervising too many children can receive a $50 fine for each child over the regulatory limit; in Kansas, it’s between $100 and $500, depending on the number of children over ratio; in Kentucky, the minimum fine for any staff-to-child violation is $250.
  • License revocation: No states reported hard-and-fast rules for determining when to suspend or revoke a license. Nearly all states said they approach that decision on a case-by-case basis — but the criteria may differ by state. In 2016, a Rhode Island center lost its license after a child wandered off the premises; a Mississippi center was allowed to stay open after leaving a child alone on a van for an hour in 2014. Several state officials said a center must be in compliance with all regulations to have a license renewed.

All of these factors impact quality, according to experts. Frequent, high-quality inspections of centers are critical for keeping babies and young children safe, for instance.

“More frequent inspections relate to higher quality for multiple reasons,” McCready said. Both the frequency and type of inspection are important, she said, “not just inspections that are ‘come in, check off the box,’ but quality inspections.”

Mississippi’s inspections, which only cover issues related to health and safety, last an average of one hour and 40 minutes, according to The Hechinger Report’s analysis of health department records.

26 states fine centers for violations; 16 states don’t, instead relying on measures like corrective action plans.

Although Child Care Aware hasn’t recommended any specific length of time for an inspection, McCready said inspections of an hour or hour and a half “seem abbreviated.”

“It really is going to take a careful, detailed and high-quality walk-through,” she said. That “walk-through” includes performing basic health and safety checks, coaching and mentoring employees, and explaining why a program might be found out of compliance, she added.

Mississippi is one of the states that fines centers for being out of compliance with state regulations. But the effect of such fines is not clear. The Hechinger Report investigation in Mississippi found that fining daycare centers often fails to result in improving conditions for children.

Related: Who should fix problems with Mississippi’s early childhood system?

Experts say fines aren’t the only, or even always the best, way to get centers to comply with regulations. Kyle Snow, director of the Center for Applied Research at the D.C.-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, said that if centers don’t show improvement, fines are pointless. “What is the goal of fines or anything else? It’s to change behavior of the program,” Snow said.

He added that publishing inspection information about child care centers may be another way to push improvement. Thirty-one states and the Department of Defense put findings of inspections online so that the public can review them easily, according to a 2013 Child Care Aware report. “If you have that kind of public accountability you may not need fines at all,” Snow said.

Under proposed regulations for the administration of the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the federal government may soon become more involved in regulating state child care systems. The funding helps low-income parents pay for child care; centers that receive vouchers must meet some federal requirements. For decades, these requirements have been minimal: Neither annual monitoring of child care centers nor background checks for child care providers are currently required — although Mississippi already requires both.

In 2014, Congress reauthorized the program. The federal Office of Administration for Children and Families is currently gathering public feedback on proposed changes that will add requirements, such as insisting that all child care workers at centers that get federal funds have received training in health and safety.

The new rules could mean progress in a field that’s been neglected for too long, child care advocates say. But Blank, from the National Women’s Law Center, cautioned that the new requirements need to be coupled with funding to help centers meet them. She added that, in general, more funding and higher standards are crucial to keeping children out of harm’s way.

“You don’t want children to be unsafe, bottom line,” she said. “You want a state to be investing enough in child care and early childhood so this doesn’t happen.”

Arianna Skibell contributed to this story, which was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. In the coming weeks, this series will look at solutions to the child care problem for Mississippi and other states.

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