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U.S. Proposal Would Limit Child-Care Regulations

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Washington--States would be restricted from imposing health and safety standards on certain types of child care under new rules for federal aid proposed by the Health and Human Services Department.

The rules, published in the June 25 Federal Register, apply to child care for welfare recipients who are working, enrolled in education and training, or moving from welfare to jobs under the 1988 Family Support Act. They also govern child care for families identified by states as being at risk of welfare dependency under legislation passed last year.

While states generally regulate publicly funded centers, many set less stringent or no standards on some forms of unsubsidized care, particularly in informal settings.

Under the proposed rules, however, states could not impose standards on the federally funded programs covered by the rules that do not apply to nonsubsidized programs.

For example, if a state does not reg4ulate providers caring for one or two children or relatives caring for children in their homes, it could not regulate them if they were funded under one of the relevant federal programs.

The same would hold true for categories of child care now exempt from licensing in some states, such as care provided by church-based centers or public schools.

'A New Set of Hoops'

Some child-care advocates say the rules would inhibit states from raising standards for publicly funded centers or from ensuring basic protections--such as running water and criminal background checks--in informal child-care settings.

The proposal "creates a whole new set of hoops for states who would want to enhance the quality of care available to parents," said Barbara Willer, director of information services for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "For those who would prefer to see deregulation, this is a real invitation."

"The regulations are disastrous as a matter of policy, since they bar states from protecting low-income children who can most benefit from quality child care," stated a Children's Defense Fund memorandum to child-care advocates.

But Bush Administration officials say the new rules are needed to offer parents the widest choice of providers, including regulated settings as well as relatives, neighbors, and churches not subject to regulation.

"The potential for the regulations excluding certain categories of care is greater if there are standards," said Mary Ann Higgins, director of h.h.s.'s Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training Program (jobs) task force.

"It would be antithetical to our overall goal of supporting the family in its quest to remain independent and self-sufficient to interfere in so personal and critical a decision as who will take care of one's children," the Federal Register notice said.

The rules are expected to have the greatest impact on states that set higher standards for publicly funded care. They would have to either ease standards for those programs or raise them for nonsubsidized care, a choice that may not be financially or "politically possible" in some cases, said Jane Boykin, director of the Mississippi Department of Human Service's office for children and youth.

Advocates in Florida, for example, faced opposition from private providers when they proposed legislation that would have raised staff-child ratios for nonsubsidized providers to the same level as subsidized programs.

Lawmakers compromised by adopting the higher ratio of 1 to 5, up from 1 to 6 in unsubsidized centers, for children under 3, and the lower ratio of 1 to 20, down from 1 to 10 in subsidized centers, for 4- and 5-year olds.

Debate Over Standards

Jo Ann Friedell, director of the bureau of child care for the New York Department of Social Services, said the rules would not pose problems for her state, which already has uniform rules for subsidized and nonsubsidized providers. The state will contin4ue to exempt relatives or providers caring for one or two children from regulation, she said, while requiring consumer-awareness programs to help parents make "informed choices" and offering unregulated providers incentives to register for licensing.

But some argue that even care not subject to regulation when parents pay for it should have higher standards when financed by public aid.

For example, Ms. Boykin said, the government's right to insist on minimum safety measures may be less compelling "if my grandmother were going to keep my child for free" than "if public dollars are going to pay my grandmother $200 to $250 a month to care for my child."

While supporting parental choice, she and others argued that states should have the leeway to decide when regulation is appropriate.

"I don't think the Congress intended that much federal interference in what states can do," said Gwen Morgan, a consultant at the Work/Family Directions Development Corporation who specializes in child-care licensing issues.

The deadline for comments on the proposed rules is Aug. 26.

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