Daycare Nightmares

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

State officials explained her case by noting that the judge placed Williams on two years' probation, then suspended imposition of the sentence. Franklin says that because of the suspended sentence, her office lacked legal grounds to revoke William's license: "That can't be my sole reason for taking their license or denying them a license.... We have to be very careful that we follow due process. We can't arbitrarily take action against a license."

Corinne Patton, coordinator of the public-awareness campaign for the Missouri Child Care Resource and Referral Network, defends the work of child-care inspectors. "Those folks take their jobs very seriously," she says. "I think when they find a rule violation, it is cited and people are expected to correct it. Some states don't do any visits unless there is a complaint. Missouri visits twice a year. I think they do make every effort to make sure people comply with the rules and, if there is a problem, work with someone to correct it. They bend over backward to give people a chance to correct a problem -- sometimes they bend too far -- but it is very hard to take someone's license away once it is granted."

She concedes that there is room for improvement: "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."
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."

Ann Watts, director of community services at the Child Day Care Association in St. Louis, agrees: "We wish there were more licensing representatives, so their caseloads were small and they could visit more often. We wish more of the care was regulated. I think the regulatory system is built on giving people a chance to correct their problems. I think the public's concern is how long does the problem go on, how did it happen and how do we make sure it doesn't happen again. Overall," Watts adds, "we have lots of real mediocre care. We have good care, and we probably have some that is really bad. But there's lots of middle-of-the-road care."

Carol Metzenthin is a family day-care-home operator in Webster Groves who has been taking care of children for 17 years. She believes the state is already aggressive when it perceives a problem -- and that further regulation would only drive more and more people like her out of the business. She says increasing regulations and fears about liability have heaped an overwhelming amount of paperwork on providers like her. She is licensed to care for 10 children in her home.

Last year, she says, she asked for help from an inspector during a visit and described how she was handling a particularly difficult little boy. She was caring for a 3-year-old child who was distracted and nonverbal and who, in an instant, could climb out of his playpen and be out the door. For his own safety, she says, she put him in a playpen with a hinged piece of plywood clipped on top. It was the only way he would settle down for a nap, Metzenthin says. "I went with my gut instinct. It was appropriate for that child," she says. Much to her surprise, the state responded by initiating a complaint investigation against her. "I was asking them for help, for the betterment of that child," she says. "He could fly out of that playpen and in half-a-second be out the door." She stopped using the playpen. The child was later found to be autistic. Under her care, she adds, the boy made significant progress, speaking in sentences and learning to play much like other children.

She is adamant in her view that the state oversteps its bounds in regulating family-child-care homes like hers, where she strives for a homelike setting, not an institutional one. "This is not a perfect world," Metzenthin says. "Everything is so monitored right now. We could have cameras in all these daycares, and that would do it. The state could start requiring that all children wear helmets.... I think the state already does a lot. They are demanding more and more and more and more.... Maybe we should do away with daycare entirely. Then will we monitor these children's parents?"

Cande Iveson, senior policy analyst with Citizens for Missouri's Children, believes the state has made progress with its caregiver screening service on the Internet, legislation making it easier for the state to suspend licenses at facilities and the law requiring background checks of registered vendors. She doesn't see further regulation -- or tougher enforcement -- in Missouri's immediate future. Legislators won't allow it, she says.

When the state was considering the legislation that required criminal-background checks for registered vendors, there was vocal opposition, Iveson says: "I had parents saying, 'I don't care -- I would rather have my kids with someone I know rather than a stranger, even if that someone I know had a felony record of assault.'"

Iveson says there is a movement in Missouri toward better quality, though not increased regulation. If the quality was there, she says, tough enforcement wouldn't be necessary: "Parents have to say this is not acceptable. If they stopped buying the services, if they have enough other good choices they can afford, they wouldn't have to choose a provider that does that." But those choices don't exist for most parents. "If every parent understood what kinds of things they should be looking for in child care," Iveson says, "and if they had say two or three places that offered all those things, that were close to where they lived and worked, that they could afford, then you'd see real progress in the overall quality of care. But we are a long way from that."

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