Daycare Nightmares

In response to growing demand, the number of daycare facilities in Missouri is increasing each year. So are the problems.

At a KinderCare daycare facility in Florissant on a cold January morning in 1999, a driver accidentally left three children in the van outside. The two 6-year-olds and a 7-year-old waited in their seats, frightened and worried -- honking the horn, crying out for help, fretting over such things as whether turning knobs on the dashboard might cause the van to explode. Eighty minutes passed before the driver realized what she had done and brought the children inside.

At the Children's Corner in Webster Groves, the home's operator used an unfinished piece of plywood to confine a troublesome 3-year-old inside a playpen during naptime -- using clamps and ropes to hold the board in place.

At the La Petite Academy in Bridgeton, a worker gave unauthorized medication to an infant who was "bawling his head off." Another worker there waited four-and-a-half hours after a 3-year-old fell from a slide on the playground before calling the boy's mother. When the woman took her son to the emergency room, she learned he had a broken elbow.

Corinne Patton, coordinator of the public-awareness campaign for the Missouri Child Care Resource and Referral Network: "There is a lot going on in child care right now; we are getting more attention than ever before. Some of that close scrutiny is going to point out what is not OK."
Corinne Patton, coordinator of the public-awareness campaign for the Missouri Child Care Resource and Referral Network: "There is a lot going on in child care right now; we are getting more attention than ever before. Some of that close scrutiny is going to point out what is not OK."
Corinne Patton, coordinator of the public-awareness campaign for the Missouri Child Care Resource and Referral Network: "There is a lot going on in child care right now; we are getting more attention than ever before. Some of that close scrutiny is going to point out what is not OK."
Jennifer Silverberg
Corinne Patton, coordinator of the public-awareness campaign for the Missouri Child Care Resource and Referral Network: "There is a lot going on in child care right now; we are getting more attention than ever before. Some of that close scrutiny is going to point out what is not OK."

Violations documented in dozens of state files on daycare centers and homes in the St. Louis area run the gamut from workers' biting or smacking children to forcing preschoolers to clean up an overflowing toilet or stand alone inside a darkened, closed bathroom. There have been cases in which up to 24 children have been left with a single caregiver, cases in which facilities have been infested with cockroaches or mice. One child was left behind after a field trip to the St. Louis Zoo; another was left behind at a skating rink. A 6-year-old climbed atop a daycare-center roof, unnoticed until a neighbor called. A 10-month-old infant at one center was picked up by a woman who said she was a family friend; no one asked her for formal identification. At another, three young girls accused their male child-care worker of molesting them.

Last year, the Missouri Department of Health's Bureau of Child Care Safety and Licensure saw a whopping 36 percent increase in complaints against child-care centers and family child-care homes statewide -- to 1,900, up from 1,400 a year earlier. The state estimates that at least a third of the allegations were substantiated. In the St. Louis area alone, it substantiated more than 100, including those at the KinderCare in Florissant, Children's Corner in Webster Groves and La Petite in Bridgeton.

And yet not one facility in the St. Louis area had its license suspended or revoked. Not one paid a fine. And not one was required to inform the parents of other children enrolled there about the violations that had occurred. All of the providers cited in the substantiated cases in the St. Louis area continue to operate, with some caring for more than 100 children every day.

In Missouri, only the most egregious violations end with denial or revocation a facility's license. Last year, that happened only seven times, and in one case, it took a baby's death to close down the home.

So far in 2000, the number of complaints has risen by 20 percent. Margaret Franklin, who heads the Missouri Bureau of Child Care Safety and Licensure, attributes the increasing numbers to growing parental awareness of a troubling daycare reality. "The level of quality is not where it should be," she says. "A lot of the child care is good, but the majority is poor to inadequate."

And the state is often reluctant to come down too hard -- because demand for child care already exceeds the supply.

In the past decade, the demand for child care has exploded as more families have come to rely on two paychecks and as government has pushed parents on welfare into the workforce. In Missouri, the number of licensed daycare facilities shot up from 2,592, with the capacity to serve 71,000 children, in 1989 to 4,033, with the capacity to serve 124,000 children, in 1999, a 75 percent increase in serving capacity.

Inspecting and monitoring those facilities is another matter. The number of child-care inspectors has gone up over the last decade, particularly since 1996, but it did not keep pace with the growth until the Bureau of Child Care Safety and Licensure received funding for 17 new positions last year, for a total administrative staff of 126, not all of whom are inspectors. The average caseload, currently about 75, is expected to decline to around 68 or 70 as the new positions are filled. But that is still much higher than the 1-to-50 ratio recommended by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Missouri inspectors visit facilities at least twice a year -- with at least one visit unannounced -- and each licensed facility is also inspected by a sanitation inspector and a fire marshal. But that's only for the licensed facilities. Most daycare facilities in Missouri are not. Anyone who takes care of fewer than five unrelated children needs no license, for example. Also exempt from most licensing regulations are nursery schools, half-day programs, summer camps and child care run by religious organizations. Working Mother magazine rates the states for child care each year, and Missouri has yet to make the top 10. Instead, the magazine characterizes Missouri as "rather undistinguished ... with some of the worst rules in the nation for the oversight of family child care."

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