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The Daycare Dilemma

Upgraded child-care standards passed by the state may have solved some problems, but trouble still remains.


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She wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and is dressed by 6 a.m. so that she won't miss her bus. She arrives at her destination at 7 a.m. She will remain there all day. Finally, at 6 p.m. she returns home, another long day over. Soon it will be time to prepare for tomorrow.

This routine may sound familiar to many Memphians with full-time jobs and busy schedules. Only this schedule isn't just for adults. It's the average day for many toddlers at one of Memphis/Shelby County's child-care centers.

For many parents, outside child care is the only choice, as financial restraints make keeping a child at home impossible. In Shelby County, daycare providers handle 56,455 kids each day.

The Department of Human Services (DHS), which licenses child-care centers and homes, requires daycare providers to meet strict guidelines. A code of ethical conduct, issued by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, even includes a Statement of Commitment to be made by child-care workers: "Our paramount responsibility is to provide safe, healthy, nurturing, and responsive settings for children," reads the statement.

But those regulations were loosely enforced and were ignored by many operators. In 1999, toddlers Brandon Mann and Darnecia Slater became casualties of the system when they died after being left in stifling daycare center vans in the Memphis heat. Revelations soon followed about financial misdoings by various daycare providers, and faith in the child-care industry was shaken. Lawmakers scrambled to rectify the problem with new legislation regulating child-care providers.

In July 2000, the state legislature passed new standards for child-care agencies and granted DHS numerous tools to enforce those laws. The guidelines were comprehensive, ranging from higher standards for child-care employees to stricter transportation guidelines. DHS could now restrict an agency's license in certain areas of operation. For example, if a program committed a serious violation relating to transportation, DHS could restrict its ability to transport children. Child-care agencies could be placed on probation, fined for minor infractions, or, in extreme cases, be shut down.

Despite the new guidelines, however, problems remain. The most recent incident occured only three weeks ago when another child was left in a daycare bus. This time the child was found before any serious harm was done, but the impression remains that many daycare centers are poorly managed.

Effective or not, the new guidelines mean that many providers must spend more money to comply. "We want the new standards, but we can't afford them, and that's making it look like providers don't want quality care and don't want to adhere to the standards," says Christian Chapel Learning Center director Melvin Wade. "We think funding should be there for us from the state for things like increased [adult/child] ratios."

Setting Standards

"We've got to start earlier to begin developing children. We're not just baby-sitting anymore," says Linda Roach, West Tennessee Program supervisor for DHS.

Tennessee law defines "child care" as providing supervision and protection for a minimum of five children, who are not related to the primary care-givers, for three or more hours a day but less than 24 hours a day. Some types of child care must be regulated, such as child-care centers, group homes, and family homes. Other kinds of child care, such as summer day-camps and Boys and Girls Clubs, may operate without a child-care license.

Teacher Doris Harrison at Riverview-Kansas Daycare.
Tennessee's child-care providers are supposed to be inspected at least six times a year to ensure that they are meeting licensing requirements. Visits are unannounced. Minimum requirements must be met in the areas of director qualification, professional development, compliance history, parent/family involvement, worker/child ratio, staff compensation, and program assessment.

In October 2001, DHS established a licensing system with an annual "report card" for all child-care agencies based on three levels of quality ratings. By October of this year, all providers will have received an evaluation and will be required to post their report card with their renewal license. If a provider meets state requirements, it has the option to participate in the Star Quality Program. This rating system is linked to a tiered reimbursement program, with higher payments for higher quality levels for agencies receiving state subsidies. The reimbursement rate is currently 70 percent of the fair market value, which is $105 per week for infants to 2-year-olds and $90 per week for children ages 2-5. One-star, two-star, and three-star providers can receive additional reimbursement of five, 15, and 20 percent, respectively.

Alice Hill, DHS daycare licensing supervisor for the Memphis/Shelby County area, says the main objective of these guidelines is to ensure children's safety. Her department consists of three supervisors and 29 counselors with a caseload of about 30 daycare providers each. They provide assistance to Shelby County's 509 daycare centers, 188 family homes, and 12 group homes.

Their jobs now include enforcing higher adult/child ratios. February 1st, new ratios for infants, toddlers, and 2-year-olds were implemented. For example, the adult/child ratio for infants was changed from one adult for every five children to one adult for every four children. The change means either more workers must be hired or fewer children can be admitted to a facility. Similar changes in adult/child ratios for 3-year-olds are set to follow in July 2002 and in July 2003 for 4- and 5-year-olds.

The Balancing Act

U.S. census data lists child-care services as the second-largest expenditure of family income behind rent or mortgage payments. With the poverty-level yearly income for a family of two at $11,610, the average weekly $125 fee for infant care constitutes 52 percent of such a family's income. Average weekly fees for toddlers are around $90; $75 for full-time school-age child care and $50 for part-time school-age care. But those fees may not be enough to cover provider costs.

Carol Hoxie has been director of Memphis Jewish Home's Children's Corner daycare center for 10 years. During her tenure the center has become one of the most popular and respected providers in Shelby County. A program of age-appropriate activities, involved parents, and reasonable tuition rates has kept the center's waiting list full. "No center is perfect, but we are good," says Hoxie. But the 50-child center will shut its doors at the end of February, leaving the children to seek care elsewhere and Hoxie and her 15-person staff without jobs.

"The [Memphis Jewish Home] board of directors decided to follow their mission to serve the elderly. I would assume that the price to adhere to [DHS] regulations was factored in," says Hoxie. Hoxie favors the new guidelines. In fact, the Children's Corner received a three-star rating during its last evaluation but could not afford to enact the additional state requirements.

Even with the free staff-development programs, counselor assistance, and funding grants provided by DHS, many agencies may be left with little choice but to discontinue services or make financial adjustments.

Diane Manning, director of Riverview-Kansas Daycare Center and president of the Tennessee Quality Child-Care Association, has no problem adhering to the three-star guidelines. "My staff is paid above-average wages, with the highest-paid teacher earning about $41,000 and [lower salaries] ranging to $21,000. We also offer benefits like life insurance, retirement, long- and short-term disability," says Manning. "But [Riverview-Kansas] is a special case. It will take minds at the state to see what the different needs are for the different daycare centers."

But even with her center's good record, Manning is having to cut additional activities which were once a hallmark of Riverview-Kansas. Extra field trips for older students are being reduced or omitted. "We are no longer able to [subsidize] activities for children whose parents cannot afford it," she says. "The children are suffering."

The centers get little sympathy from DHS. "It is the personal responsibility of the center to seek the necessary resources, because there is no reason for any provider to not have information on providing quality care," says Hill. "Providers should weigh costs to offer services. You have to account for expenses. If [providers] thought they were going to get into this business to make a bunch of money, that is not the case. They've gotten into the wrong business." Hill says the bottom line is that the goals are attainable without requiring extra money.

Looking To the Future

Hill is optimistic about the future of the child-care industry. "Centers now being licensed are coming aboard with a better understanding of what licensing is about. I see improvement in quality," says Hill. As of mid-January, 230 agencies were participating in the Star Quality Program.

Hoxie, not surprisingly, doesn't see the future in quite the same way. "Things in the child-care industry needed to change, but it's a vicious circle," she says. "The regulations are good, but centers cannot afford to adhere to them, so the price of child care is raised. Parents then cannot afford to pay the rates and the centers go out of business."

In her fourth year as chair of the Children and Family Affairs committee, state Rep. Carol Chumney has proposed or been involved with the current legislation to raise the reimbursement rate for state-subsidized agencies, increase child-care worker salaries, and change adult/child ratios. With the Childcare and Licensing Division of DHS estimating only a $5-$6-per-week rate increase to implement all of the new regulations, Chumney gives little credence to centers whose operators are complaining about increased expenditures.

"Maybe one of the reasons why children are still being left on buses could be because the workers responsible for that job aren't qualified to do it. If I was a parent, I sure wouldn't mind paying the little extra to ensure that my child was receiving quality care," says Chumney.

"There are centers that believe the reforms are about education and brain development for children and not about costs," Chumney adds. "What Tennessee has done, and is doing, is something we should have done sooner. Why should our kids be stuck in a center trying to fight for attention? Basically, the real question is: 'Why should poor children be given poor care?'"

Legislative Timeline For Child-care Reform

1999 -- Toddlers Brandon Mann and Darnecia Slater die after being left alone in daycare vans in the Memphis heat.

July 2000 -- New state guidelines for child-care centers are instituted and DHS is granted new enforcement tools, including:

Restricted Licenses -- The department may issue a restricted license, which limits the agency's authority in one or more areas of operation.

Probation -- The department is able to place a child-care agency on probation for not less than 30 days but not more than 60 days for violating licensing laws and regulations.

Civil Penalties -- Penalties range from $50 per day per violation for minor infractions to $1,000 per day per violation for major infractions.

Injunction -- DHS can seek an injunction against child-care agencies operating illegally. The injunction would prevent them from continuing to operate. Injunctions can be part of or separate from other enforcement actions, such as summary suspension.

November 2000 -- Daycare providers are required to have minimum amounts of liability and accident insurance for facilities as well as for vehicles owned, leased, or contracted.

January 2001 -- Criminal background checks are required for all new employees, substitutes, and vehicle operators.

October 2001 -- Graduated Licensing Systems/Annual Report Cards are put into place.

February 2002 -- Lower adult/child ratios for infants through 2-year-olds. New ratios for 3-year-olds will go into effect in July 2002; July 2003 for 4- and 5-year-olds.

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