Sexual-Abuse Cases Prompt Concern, Action on Preschool Regulation

By Anne Bridgman — May 09, 1984 15 min read

Amid widening allegations of sexual abuse involving young children at day-care centers and preschools around the country, both experts and parents are suggesting that the regulatory systems governing such facilities are inadequate.

One organization has started to develop a voluntary national accrediting system to ensure higher standards for children who attend the centers.

To date, preschools, nurseries, and day-care centers have been monitored loosely by states, experts note, primarily to assure only that they meet minimum health and safety standards. Licensing regulations vary widely from state to state, they point out, and are subject to frequent change. Unlicensed facilities in homes have sprung up rapidly over the last decade, and there are few statistics on the numbers and operation of centers.

“The safeguarding programs for day care in this country are not adequate for the times,” according to Norris Class, emeritus professor in the school of social work at the University of Southern California.

“The whole idea of licensing is to prevent risks to children,” said Diane Adams, assistant director of Community Coordinated Child Care in Madison, Wis., a child-referral agency. “It’s not a badge of quality.”

But quality is now becoming an issue, she and others say, not only because of the rash of child-abuse cases, but because of the unprecedented and still growing demand for the services preschool facilities provide. And in several states, social-service officials, legislators, and parents have begun a careful examination of how the facilities are licensed and monitored and how those who staff them are trained and selected.

Discoveries of Abuse

Concern over the adequacy of day-care regulations was sparked in part by the recent child-abuse charges filed against staff members of day-care centers and schools in Chicago, Cullman, Ala., Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Minneapolis.

In a case that has forced California officials to scrutinize their regulatory procedures, seven teachers at the Virginia McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach were charged with sexually abusing at least 180 children over a period of 10 years, involving them in a prostitution ring, and using them in pornographic films and photographs. (See Education Week, April 11, 1984.)

Parents whose children attended the McMartin Preschool called for increased regulation of preschools, saying the case was “another example of how social agen-cies, as well as law enforcement, have not kept pace with a society where the two-income family has become the rule, not the exception.”

In 1982, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were about 12.5 million American women aged 18 to 44 with children under 5; 48.2 percent of those women were classified as being in the workforce--either working or seeking work--a 7.2-percent increase over 1977.

Working Mothers

An additional 1.7 million mothers who did not work--most of whom were in low-income families--said they would seek employment if they could afford adequate child-care arrangements, according to the Census Bureau.

A 1982 report by the bureau also indicated that 40 percent of working mothers sent their children to someone else’s home to be cared for, 9 percent sent them to a day-care center, and 6 percent sent them to a preschool or a nursery school.

Projections suggest that by 1990, 80 percent of children under 6 will have working mothers and that 50 percent of those children will have to be cared for in formal day-care facilities, Mr. Class said.

There are about 22,000 licensed day-care centers and from four to 12 times as many unlicensed facilities in the U.S., according to Richard Ruopp, president of The Bank Street College of Education.

"[Because] there’s such a shortage of affordable child care for working parents, particularly for low-income families, they are forced to use places that may not be top quality,” said Mary M. Emmons, executive director of Children’s Institute International, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that provides child care and works to treat and prevent child abuse.

How Regulations Developed

Day-care licensing rules grew directly out of foster-care regulations that were established at the turn of the century, said Ms. Adams of the Madison, Wis., child-care agency.

“It was a pragmatic choice that we must do something to protect these children,” she said, who were often exposed to illness and sometimes died in foster homes.

When states began to run part-day child-care programs, Ms. Adams said, “they used the same model: child-protective regulations.” These regulations remain the basis of state statutes, but they do not reflect the changed needs of today’s parents and children, she charged.

“Our laws, the statutes, the licensing regulations are really almost pre-20th century,” said Mr. Class of the University of Southern California.

“With this tremendous upsurge [in the need for child care], we not only haven’t brought the statutes up to date, but we haven’t developed funding, we haven’t developed staff training, and we haven’t developed a community-education program to ... teach parents that they must assume a greater responsibility in [monitoring] child care.”

“We’re in a tremendous state of flux in both the way we view regulations and their practical effect and what licensing is in-tended to do,” Ms. Adams said. “This is a very, very fast-growing field.”

State Licensing Requirements

Between the mid-1960’s and 1980, the federal government became involved in developing regulations to govern the operation of the Title XX day-care centers that were mandated by the Congress under the Social Security Act to serve low-income children, and its rule-making might have had subsequent influence on state lawmakers, some say. But in 1981, the Congress returned all regulatory power over those centers to the states when it amended Title XX through the Social Services Block Grant legislation, according to Ray Collins, an official with the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families (acyf) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The result, Mr. Collins said, is that states continue to vary in their approach to regulation, with some requiring facilities to be licensed at the state level and others placing licensing at the county level, he said.

Interviews with officials in a number of states suggest that the minimum requirements vary from area to area based on the number of children enrolled at a center; the hours of operation; and whether the facility is a home-operated center that enrolls a small group of children, a home day-care center that enrolls a larger number of children, or a day-care center that operates outside the home.

In some states, preschools are exempted from the day-care licensing provisions, according to Ms. Adams. In other states, they are included, and in some there is no difference between day-care centers and preschools.

In the “Comparative Licensing Study” (cls), conducted in 1976 and again in 1980, Mr. Collins’s agency compared laws and regulations relating to child-care centers, group day-care homes, and family day-care homes to provide a common framework for assessing state licensing procedures. While the study has been criticized by some state-agency workers as “riddled with mistakes,” it is one of the few comprehensive studies available.

The licensing study found that, for day-care centers that enroll 4-year-old children, 48 states and the District of Columbia set child-staff ratio requirements, ranging from a low of 5 children to 1 “caregiver,” to a high of 20 children to 1 caregiver. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia had requirements regarding maximum group size; the number ranged from 10 to 45 children.

The study also looked at educational and other program activities, physical environment, health and safety, nutrition, parent involvement, social services, programs for handicapped children and for infants and toddlers, and administrative practices. State requirements may also cover such considerations as sanitation, equipment, discipline (including provisions against corporal punishment), guidance, and transportation.

Caregiver Training

Most states have minimum requirements for the training or certification of day-care-center directors and staff members--such as a high-school diploma, previous work with children, and the ability to read and write. But the 1980 cls study of centers that enroll 4-year-olds found that only 10 states and the District of Columbia require caregivers to have a B.S. or B.A. degree. Of these, the study found, only three states required that the degree be in early-childhood education or child development.

Moreover, that follow-up showed that state officials had decreased rather than increased the stringency of such requirements in the intervening years.

“The shifts from the 1978 report demonstrate a creeping disillusionment with academic degrees as a basis for safeguarding quality,” Mr. Collins wrote in “Child Care and the States: The Comparative Licensing Study,” an article in the July 1983 issue of Young Children.

“Fourteen of the 21 states that had B.S./B.A. requirements in 1978 had dropped them by 1981,” he wrote. “Only three states had tightened their academic provisions for child-care-center staff.”

New Credential Used

More states, however, are requiring that the caregiver hold a “Child Development Associate Credential.” That credential, which is awarded by the National Credentialing Program in Washington, D.C., was developed in 1976 by a group of early-childhood professionals to measure job performance and demonstrated competence, according to Mark Sarver, a development and promotion specialist with the program.

Candidates who apply to the program are assessed by a four-member team that includes a child-care professional, a parent, and a person who has been trained by the program, Mr. Sarver said. The candidate may choose to participate in a college-sponsored training program but can only receive the credential through the national office, which is operated by Bank Street College.

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have adopted the credential as a requirement for day-care-center staff members, Mr. Sarver said. A total of 13,000 people in U.S. have the credential, he said, and an estimated 3,000 more are expected to receive the certificate this year.

Mr. Collins called the increase in the number of states that require the certificate “the most significant movement on the part of states in terms of upgrading their day-care programs.”

Ms. Adams of the Madison, Wis., child-care agency agreed that the training of staff members is of paramount importance. “If [a center] can hire a good staff, then the developmental life of [the children] should be pretty secure,” she said. “Where the staff isn’t that well trained or is a kind of ‘revolving-door’ staff that takes uninvolved kind of people, I suspect that the developmental consequences are pretty severe.”

Weak Standards

Some state officials concerned with day-care centers agree that their standards are too weak.

In Washington, the requirements are “very minimum, and “not adequate” as an assurance of proper care, said Oreen K. Scott, a day-care-licensing official with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

“Every person who has the responsibility for caring for someone else within a business should have the qualifications for that caring,” said Ms. Scott.

Under the minimum licensing requirements, she said, monitors are required to conduct an announced visit once every three years. If a complaint is filed, state monitors conduct unannounced visits, Ms. Scott said. Most complaints, she noted, are in the area of child abuse and neglect. If abuse is substantiated by the state’s child-protective services unit, she said, the center’s license is revoked.

An Impossible Job

In many states, the large number of facilities--6,400 day-care centers and approximately 27,500 family-run day-care facilities in California, for example--makes thorough regulation impossible, offcials say. Said Lawrence Bolton, assistant chief counsel for the California Department of Public and Social Services: “We can’t be expected to know what’s going on in all of the centers.”

There is also criticism of state officials’ re-licensing checks of the facilities. “It’s a very cursory visit,” noted Carla Sanger, executive director of the Los Angeles Child Care and Development Council Inc., a private, nonprofit organization that operates five centers for 250 children from low-income families.

“Many of them count toilets and square feet and that’s all they do,’' she said of the monitors. “I would in no way consider that the licensing that exists [in California] is sufficient or adequate.” Monitors who checked the Manhattan Beach facility gave it excellent ratings, reinforcing the charge that scheduled visits make it easy to conceal abuse.

Some states have dealt with that problem by conducting unannounced visits. In Oklahoma, members of the child-welfare division of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services conduct three to four unannounced visits yearly to each of the state’s 1,000 day-care homes and 1,200 day-care centers, according to Prins E. Anderson, program supervisor for the division.

“We can see what’s going on because they have not prepared for us,” Ms. Anderson said. “It gives an indication of what’s going on while we’re not there.”

Charles Pekow, editor of Day Care U.S.A., a biweekly newsletter for day-care professionals that is published by the Day Care Information Service, agreed.

“I don’t think that licensing could have prevented [a case like the McMartin Preschool case], unless you have inspectors in there all day long,” he said. “They don’t sodomize kids when inspectors are around. The only thing that might have helped [avoid the sexual abuse] is to have more unannounced visits.”

Underground Industry

Many experts contend that the regulatory problems, and potential dangers to children, posed by the burgeoning number of unlicensed facilities are even more serious.

“There’s a large underground child-care movement that is unlicensed,” said Ms. Emmons, referring to informal, family-run programs. “Licensing is necessary to maintain minimum health and safety standards,” she said, and to ensure that children are taught by qualified individuals.

Patricia Hawkins, project director for acyf’s National Day-Care Home Study, which was conducted from 1967 to 1981, agreed that licensing is essential. “Only about 6 percent of the family day-care homes are licensed or registered in any way,” she said.

Calling home-care programs “kith-and-kin networks,” Ms. Hawkins said most operations are conducted by friends or relatives of children and “enroll” a small number of children. “Ninety percent of all family day-care homes have six or fewer children,” she said. “Fifty percent have three or fewer.”

An estimated 1.5 million women work as caregivers in their homes, Ms. Hawkins said.

In some states, officials are replacing requirements that family day-care operations be licenced with requirements that such programs simply “register,” according to Mr. Pekow. In most cases, he said, that involves “just sending in a postcard.” Such a minimal requirement, Mr. Pekow said, is easy to comply with, ensures that there are records of operating facilities, and can be used as a reference point if the state receives a complaint.

Revision of Standards

A number of states are now scrutinizing their day-care policies.

In Texas, for example, state officials are considering changing caregiver standards, according to Jean English, standards and policy specialist in the licensing division of the Texas Department of Human Resources. Currently, day-care employees must be at least 18 years old and be able to read and write. The state licenses 21,130 day-care facilities.

“We have identified some areas in which we believe that the standards [should be] changed and we will be proposing revisions,” Ms. English said. The changes, which would go into effect next January, will also cover staff-to-child ratios, safety, and provisions for monitoring facilities, Ms. English said.

“I don’t know that monitoring itself will ever have a major impact on [stopping abuse] until the public is able to recognize that they need to report any suspected abuse,” Ms. English said.

However, she noted that legislation is likely to be introduced to allow the state’s licensing branch to conduct criminal-record checks on staff members in day-care facilities. “That would have some impact if individuals had ever been indicted and found guilty of sexual molestation,” she said. (See related story on additional legislation on page 9.)

Licensing standards in Illinois were recently revised to upgrade requirements for center employees. Those who work with children must be at least 19 and have a high-school diploma or the equivalent, said Patricia E. Bennett, licensing specialist with the division of child protection in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The state also requires the employees to fulfill at least one of three other criteria: two years of credit from an accredited college or university, including six semester-hours in child-care or child-development courses; one year of full-time child-development experience and one year of college with six hours in child-care; or credentials from a child-development-credential program.

“I had a major role in helping prepare the standards [in Illinois],’' said Ms. Bennett. “I feel comfortable with what we have.” The state licenses 5,483 day-care homes and 2,299 day-care centers.

Credentialing Policy

Some child-care experts maintain, however, that changes in day-care policy must go beyond regulations. Mr. Class called on public and private associations to begin a program of credentialing day-care centers and preschools.

“I think there needs to be a second tier of safeguarding,” he said. “The state can’t do that through licensing. But there can be volunteer associations that raise the standards above licensing.”

One such voluntary accreditation system is being field tested in California, Florida, Minnesota, and Texas. It is an attempt to provide “national criteria” by which facilities can be measured, according to Marilyn Smith, director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the group that is developing the program.

“The ‘voluntary’ is extremely important,” Ms. Smith said. "[It should be] something that centers would seek on their own without pressure, because they want the prestige of a national organization accreditation.”

Under the program, which officials expect to be available nationwide next year, centers would conduct their own evaluation, after which two sets of “validators” would visit to test the accuracy of the validation procedures. A commission of recognized, national early-childhood-education experts would make the final decision on accreditation.

“We hope that we can begin with this to help define for the public at large what a high-quality program is and to convince people that it’s worth it,” Ms. Smith said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 1984 edition of Education Week as Sexual-Abuse Cases Prompt Concern, Action on Preschool Regulation