Monday, October 24, 2005


As a monitor for the USDA Childcare Food Program for many years, I visited homes across seven counties in the state of Indiana. It was rare to visit a home that should not have been in business. Perhaps three homes were poorly run.

The problem is not a paternalistic government with too few rules. The problem is that government doesn't know what to do in the private sector. When the government tries to "rule" in the private sector, they nearly always get it wrong.

One of my chief difficulties with government in day care is their desire to focus on an uncovered garbage can at one licensed home with a preschool program and ten children while they ignore the unlicensed house down the street where the provider is burning trash in an open fire in the living room and fifty children who run the neighborhood.

Mullen: Quality child care a crapshoot
By Holly Mullen Tribune Columnist


A legislative audit of the state's child care industry released last week handed lawmakers more than they bargained for. Acting on complaints from a handful of Utah's 2,700 licensed child care providers who said health department licensers were too picky and arbitrary in citing health and safety violations, the Legislature ordered the state auditor to check it out.

It turns out that overregulation is scarcely the problem. It turns out that 47 convicted felons either lived or worked at licensed day care centers between 2002 and 2004. It turns out that two of those convicted criminals physically or sexually abused a child under a provider's care.

Legally, regulators can exempt day care programs that employ people convicted of misdemeanors such as drug possession or petty theft, but must get clearance from the health department director to do so. But in all these cases, regulators either granted exceptions to providers or weren't told of any misdemeanor records. And the most egregious case ended with the sexual abuse of a 5-year-old child by a man whose wife ran a home day care center. Even after the man pleaded guilty to sexual abuse, the license remained intact.

Burdensome regulation of child care seems to be the least of this state's worries. Certainly, the audit showed that some providers were nicked for minor infractions such as too little cushioning on playgrounds. But more than anything, the audit reinforces one fact most parents already know: It's a Herculean task to find quality child care you can trust and afford. And when you do find that place, sending your child there is too much of a crapshoot.

Some of the lax licensing can be blamed on a paternalistic sense many legislators still employ: that too many parents, specifically women, choose to work outside the home. This, even when 2000 figures from the Department of Workforce Services reveal that 54 percent of Utah's married couples with children work to survive. Seventy-four percent of Utah mothers with school-age children are in the work force. And 59 percent of Utah moms with preschoolers work outside the home.

The numbers exist, but judgments about who works and why, and who should and shouldn't, float in the subtext of every child care discussion at the Capitol. The schizophrenia around the topic is clear: The statistics are there. Parents work. Are politicians going to keep fighting that reality, or create ways to support the hard-working families who elect them? The most misguided move of all would be to further deregulate an industry that parents depend on to protect the most vulnerable.

Marc Babitz, a family practice physician appointed in May to head the health systems improvement division at the health department, told me on Friday "absolutely no more exceptions" to the licensing law would occur under his watch. His department has sent letters to all providers warning that anyone living or working within their business with a felony record must permanently leave the premises. They have one year to comply or lose their license. He vows the action will be swift and firm. Is that aggressive enough?

In some ways, Babitz's hands are tied. The providers in question, he said, have operated with the understanding they had a proper variance to the rules. It doesn't make him any less queasy. "We have 2,700 providers, five categories of licensing and a separate file on each provider," he said. "I just wish I had a button to push and take care of all this."

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