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Federal Child-Care Guidelines Draw Some Praise, More Criticism

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New federal guidelines for regulating child-care programs are drawing praise from experts as "a first step" toward controlling the quality of the burgeoning industry.

But they have also angered many child-care specialists, who charge that the guidelines' focus on the prevention of child abuse is a distortion of the child-care issue, which they say includes a range of more important governance and quality problems.

In addition, they note, in issuing guidelines at a time when minimum requirements already established by states and counties vary considerably, the federal government has sidestepped an opportunity to play what many consider a much needed leadership role in helping states upgrade child-care facilities.

Guidelines Developed

The guidelines were made public late last month by the Department of Health and Human Services. The department had been instructed to develop model standards for the operation of child-care programs last fall, when the Congress enacted several legislative provisions related to the prevention of child abuse in day-care facilities in Public Law 98-473, the Continuing Appropriations Act for fiscal 1985.

The law provides $25 million under Title XX of the Social Security Act for the training and retraining of providers and staff members of licensed or registered child-care services, state licensing and enforcement officials, and parents.

Legislation Requirements

The legislation, signed by the President on Oct. 12, requires states to use the funds to establish, by law or regulation, procedures to provide for employment-history and background checks and nationwide criminal-records checks for all those who work with children in care facilities.

The law also directs hhs to provide guidance to the states in using the Title XX funds by publishing minimum licensing or registration standards for day-care centers, family day-care homes, and group day-care homes.

Copies of the hhs report--"Model Child Care Standards Act"--have been sent to every governor and to state departments of licensing, child-welfare agencies, and legislatures, according to David A. Rust, director of the hhs's office of policy and legislation and the official responsible for the report.

There are an estimated 22,000 licensed day-care centers and from 4 to 12 times as many unlicensed facilities across the country. U.S. Census Bureau figures indicate that 48.5 percent of the 12.5 million women ages 18 to 44 with children under 5 are in the workforce and utilize some form of child care.

Parental Involvement

The hhs document urges state and local governments to help parents "form the first line of defense to abuse." The guidelines recommend policies that encourage close cooperation between parents and day-care providers, frequent visits to centers by parents, and parental involvement in planning.

"We especially encourage state day-care licensing authorities to require: intensive background screening, including fingerprint checks, reference checks, and employment-history checks, for potential employees of day-care facilities," the report states.

The document also calls for required probationary periods for new child-care employees during which further background investigations and on-site evaluations should take place; an "open-door" policy so that parents can visit their children at any time unannounced; increased training of child-care workers to hone their skills in the prevention, detection, and reporting of child abuse; and community-education efforts that "candidly alert" parents, children, and the general public to the dangers of child abuse.

'Ignoring Problems'

Edward F. Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Eary Childhood Development and Social Policy at Yale University, is among child-care experts who were disappointed with the recommendations.

"They responded as though the problem of the standards was a problem of how to cut down the instances of sexual abuse," he said. "That's a real problem, but those of us who know about child care see the problem [of abuse] as being systemic. ... By running after sex abuse, we're ignoring the basic systemic problems of day care today."

Mr. Zigler also pointed out that "the notion [expressed in the report] that we can't come to some agreement on standards is not true," and recommended that the federal government "use its authority as a pulpit to pull together standards and provide a forum in which states can become knowledgeable about the standards that do exist."

"The needs of children in day care are not all that different in Texas from what they are in New York," he added.

"The federal government should be providing guidelines," said Elinor Guggenheimer, president of the Child Care Action Campaign. "I think many of them are very good."

Federal Leadership

But federal officials could provide more leadership by playing a role in collecting and disseminating information to the states, she argued.

"With the computer system that hhs has, they could really be a central repository with regional offices that would begin to [provide] a picture of what is happening across the country," she said. "Nobody seems to know. ... There's a lot of confusion."

'A First Step'

Deborah Phillips, president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, labeled the report "a first step." But she added that the Administration must follow the report "by some other steps in order for it to really have some impact."

Among those steps, Ms. Phillips suggested, could be an offer of financial incentives to states that make an effort to improve child-care standards and techniques to spotlight areas in which states fall short of acceptable standards, such as in their failure to adopt open-visitation policies.

"If the federal government is genuinely concerned about child care and promoting quality, you really have to ask, 'Don't they want to know if this effort is having an impact?' Otherwise, all you have is 63 pages of prose."

'Could Have Gone Further'

Carla Curtis, a public-policy analyst with the National Black Child Development Institute, expressed similar concerns. "If in fact the department is saying these are model considerations, then it should be backed up by some kind of grant-incentive program. ... There's really no money to implement what's been suggested."

Both Ms. Phillips and Ms. Curtis argued that the guidelines' focus on the prevention of child abuse will work to minimize concern over the quality of other facets of child care, such as child development, learning conditions, and health and safety conditions.

"Parents don't simply want their children to be protected from abuse," Ms. Phillips said. "They want them to thrive in a quality environment. If we stop at preventing child abuse, we won't be making sure there's quality child care."

Both Ms. Phillips's and Ms. Curtis's groups are involved in an ad hoc coalition that met late last week to draft a response to the hhs stan-dards. Other members of the advocacy group include the Children's Defense Fund, the Child Welfare League, and the Junior League.

Missed Opportunity

Representative George Miller, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, which has spent the last year hearing testimony on child care and child abuse, also expressed disappointment with the report.

Representative Miller, who was out of town last week and unavailable for comment, has told the press that hhs missed an opportunity to contribute to children's protection and safety in child care. The directions given to hhs by the Congress were clear and the agency failed to follow them, he has said, referring to the report's claim that "the department considers it infeasible to formulate a model act in the form of a single set of standards that it could responsibly put forward as one that all states should follow."

State Audience

Mr. Rust of hhs said last week that report was written to the Congress's specifications.

"We decided that what Congress wanted us to do [was direct the report] to the states," Mr. Rust said, to help those that "want to strengthen their legislation" to combat child sexual abuse. "There are a lot of differences between Wyoming and New York, and we couldn't spoon-feed [standards] precisely to one state."

Narrow Guidelines

But a Congressional aide close to child-care issues agreed with Representative Miller. "Even where they purport to have given minimum guidance on child abuse, they did so narrowly and they gave it so little weight as to trivialize it," said the aide, who asked not to be identified. In the report, she noted, the list of guidelines is included in a foreword written by hhs Secretary Margaret M. Heckler and the balance of the document is "a compilation of standards used by different agencies and states showing the range of possibilities available to states."

"hhs did not produce a model child-care standards act," said the aide. "They were asked to come up with minimum set of standards that would not be mandatory, but would provide guidance. So their argument that it was infeasible to provide guidelines because of local variation in states is specious."

Florida Use

One of the states that will be utilizing the guidelines as a resource is Florida.

In that state, following a special legislative session in December to consider 10 gubernatorial recommendations on upgrading child-care standards, the legislature approved five of the proposals and appointed a task force to consider the remainder. That task force has been sent copies of the hhs report.

Florida officials have been studying the issues described in the federal report for a number of years, said Ellen Hoffenberg, head of Gov. Robert Graham's "Constituency for Children." The report, she said, ''is really more of an information resource at this point and that's what we're using it for."

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