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Poorly Regulated Child Care Widespread, C.D.F. Finds

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Washington--Nearly half of all children cared for outside their homes are in settings not subject to child-care licensing laws, and standards governing regulated programs are often insufficient to ensure children's "health, safety, and full development," a new report by the Children's Defense Fund has concluded.

The child-advocacy group notes in the report that more than 6 million children--including more than 2 million under age 3--spend at least part of their day in out-of-home child care.

While most states license publicly funded child-care centers, the c.d.f. says, many of the most common forms of child care are exempt from regulation or operate undetected by state agencies.

"Many states lack sufficient resources to monitor and enforce the requirements," the report adds.

Family day-care homes--nonprofit programs operated in providers' homes--care for roughly half of all children in child-care programs, with the majority serving fewer than six children, according to the c.d.f.

But the group's 50-state survey found that 22 states exempt family day-care homes serving five or fewer children from regulation.

In addition, the report says, 29 states fully or partially exempt from regulation child-care programs operated by public schools, and 13 states grant such exemptions for child-care centers run by religious institutions--which account for one-third of all child-care centers.

For programs subject to licensing, the group charges, state standards are often inadequate. For example:

Thirteen states do not require children in regulated family day-care homes to receive "basic immunizations."

Counter to the recommendations of child-care experts, 19 states allow centers to operate with five or more infants per adult, and 22 states set no limits on overall group size.

Only a quarter of the states require child-care-center staff members to have a minimum number of hours of training; 35 states require no training for family day-care providers.

Twenty-nine do not give parents the "unqualified right" to visit family day-care homes unannounced.

While many states report an "enormous increase" in the number of child-care centers subject to regulation in recent years, the report says, many report having insufficient staff and resources to monitor programs effectively. Sixteen, for example, reported having to scale back monitoring due to a lack of funds, and eight said they could not address all complaints on quality.

The report adds that few states have offered "meaningful incentives'' to improve child-care quality, either by raising staff wages or helping providers get training.

Gina C. Adams, the report's author, says substandard care is most detrimental to poor children, who are "less likely to develop strong cognitive and social skills and to be prepared for school" than those in programs of high caliber.

Arguing that child care is unlikely to improve without federal and state action, the c.d.f. urges the Congress to pass a child-care bill before adjourning for the year.

Legislation pending in a House-Senate conference committee would require only that states have standards in certain broad areas, such as adult-child ratios, and would give them three years to phase in new regulations.

Copies of "Who Knows How Safe? The Status of State Efforts to Ensure Quality Child Care" are available for $4.95 each, plus $1.50 for shipping, from c.d.f. Publications, 122 C St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001.

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