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Publicly Funded Informal Child Care Poorly Regulated

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Washington

Many states use federal child-care aid to pay for informal arrangements that "are falling far short of providing basic health and safety protections'' for young children, a new report from the Children's Defense Fund warns.

Prior to the late 1980's, the report notes, most states did not use significant amounts of public aid in settings that frequently are exempt from state regulation or licensing, such as care provided for small numbers of children in a care-giver's home or in a parent's home.

But child-care bills passed in the late 1980's and early 1990's, it says, "opened the door to the use of federal funds for exempt care,'' partly in an effort to give parents more options.

While the infusion of child-care aid generally has helped more poor parents pursue self-sufficiency, the report argues, regulations issued under the Bush Administration "sent clear signals that unfettered parental choice should take precedence over health and safety concerns, and failed to encourage states to adopt strong protections for children in exempt care.''

The result, the report maintains, is that "a sizable number of states use federal child-care funds to pay for care that they know absolutely nothing about.''

"Taxpayer dollars are funding some forms of child care for low-income children that do not meet even the most minimal health and safety standards,'' said Helen Blank, the C.D.F.'s child-care director.

The problem, she said, has implications for the next round of debate on welfare reform--which could increase the demand for child care even further--and also for efforts to insure that all children have access to the kind of care that can bolster their school readiness.

The report, based on a nationwide study, examined the health and safety standards set by states for informal or exempt care under four programs: the child-care block grant, which is aimed at low-income working families; the Family Support Act, which provides child-care aid under two programs for welfare parents pursuing education and training or making the transition to work; and the at-risk child-care program for families who need child care to stay off welfare.

Lax Training, Inspection

The study found that:

  • 25 states do not require smaller family child-care providers to submit to inspections;
  • 24 do not require those providers to receive first-aid or any other training in health and safety;
  • 21 do not require child immunizations in small family-care homes;
  • Only 19 require criminal background checks or child-abuse registry checks for workers in exempt settings; and
  • More than one in five states do not consistently set health and safety standards for children in informal settings under the welfare measures, or offer less protections than they extend to children whose care is funded by block-grant programs.

The report recommends several steps states should take to provide better protection in the exempt settings. It also argues for more funds and technical aid to help providers to meet standards and states to hire more inspectors.

Ms. Blank said a range of other policies are also needed, from improving the supply of infant and toddler care to adjusting provider reimbursement rates and state matching requirements that limit parents' child-care choices.

Another new C.D.F. report warns that increased demand to provide child care for welfare recipients is prompting states to divert aid for working poor families.

Competing for Funds

The competition for scarce funds, the report notes, has caused some states to limit access to child care for welfare recipients. But more commonly, it says, "states are going to great lengths'' to meet those obligations, "but often at the expense'' of aid for the working poor.

The report says successful welfare reform will require bigger investments in both types of care, stronger child-care guarantees for parents, and better protections and improved services for children.

The reports, "Protecting Our Children: State and Federal Policies for Exempt Child-Care Settings,'' and "Child-Care Tradeoffs: States Make Painful Choices,'' are available for $5.95 each from C.D.F. Publications, 25 E St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001.

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