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Child-Care Woes Called Threat to Welfare Overhaul

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Glitches in federal and state welfare-reform policies are making it "virtually impossible'' for parents to get high-quality child care while they participate in education and training programs, a study released last week by the Children's Defense Fund contends.

The policy problems, the study warns, also are increasing the likelihood that those parents who do find jobs will go back on welfare.

The report is based on a survey of state child-care and welfare officials. It explores how families' child-care needs are being met under the Family Support Act, a 1988 federal law that placed new obligations on welfare clients while helping states offer education, training, and child care to facilitate self-sufficiency.

Deficiencies in federal and state implementation of the law "deny many of America's poorest children access to good-quality child care as their parents struggle to leave'' welfare, the report concludes.

"We cannot hope to ensure that our poorest children enter school ready to learn unless [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] children receive the highest-quality child care,'' said Helen Blank, a senior child-care specialist for the C.D.F.

While citing efforts by some states to better serve A.F.D.C. families' child-care needs, the report charges that many offer inadequate health and safety protections, set "unrealistically low payments'' for providers, and limit parents' choices.

It adds that the "transitional child care'' that was supposed to be assured for parents moving from welfare to work under the welfare law "either fails to reach most eligible families or provides too little assistance to meet their needs.''

Policy Changes Urged

Among the report's findings:

  • 28 states either had no health or safety protections or failed to address such "basic issues'' as fire safety, storage of toxic substances, and unlimited parental access;
  • 9 states paid only $200 a month for each child under 2 and $175 a month for older children--well below the $350 to $400 that the report says high-quality care "typically costs'';
  • 26 states reported that low reimbursement rates make some providers "unwilling to serve A.F.D.C. children.'' Moreover, 28 states said they provided at least part of their child-care aid through "retrospective'' reimbursements, a policy that the study argues further limits the choices of parents who cannot afford to pay up front; and
  • 16 states served 5 percent or fewer of the families potentially eligible for transitional child care from April 1990 to April 1991, while 8 offered it to at least 20 percent of those eligible.

The report urges states to strengthen child-care standards, raise reimbursement rates, improve information and counseling for parents, and set fees and payment approaches that expand parents' choices.

The study also calls on the federal government to alter proposed regulations that limit states' ability to raise standards for subsidized child care and to allow states to reimburse providers at the full market rate and pay higher rates to programs offering broader services or serving special needs. In addition, it proposes policy changes to make transitional child care more accessible.

Copies of the report, "Child Care Under the Family Support Act: Early Lessons from the States,'' are available for $3 each from the Children's Defense Fund, Family Support Division, 25 E St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001.

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