Unlicensed Child Care Puts Children At Risk

The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) is allocated to states to both assist families in affording the cost of child care and to improve the quality of child care (such as through training or other activities). In October, new state reported child care data was released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with regard to the number of low income children in each state assisted through  CCDBG.  boy playing w blocks, verticle stock

Overall in FY2013, about 1.4 million children received assistance each month (about 47,500 fewer children in 2013 compared to 2012). The number of children receiving assistance is one part of the story. An equally important part of the story is the type of child care paid for by CCDBG.

In many cases, low income families who receive assistance are able to access quality child care that they would not otherwise be able to afford.  That’s good news for children who will be in a safe setting that promotes their healthy development. And, great news because research shows that high quality child care makes a difference for all children, but particularly for the school readiness of low income children.

What is troubling is that of the 1.4 million children receiving federal subsidies, about 15 percent (218,265) are in unlicensed care. This means that these children are in settings where little is known about the provider except that she receives a government check to care for low income children. In many states, these unlicensed providers are not required to have training, there are no minimum health and safety protections for children (or maybe there is a checklist that providers submit “self-certifying” compliance) and no inspections are required – unless there is a parent complaint.

In 11 states plus Puerto Rico, 25 percent or more of the children receiving a subsidy are in unlicensed care (Hawaii, Oregon, Alabama, Puerto Rico, Nevada, Illinois, Connecticut, Michigan, New York, Missouri, North Dakota, and Indiana).

unlicensed by percentage snapshot fy2013

In 18 states, of the children in unlicensed settings whose care is paid for through CCDBG, more than half of the children are with non-relatives.

Unlicensed NonRelative Care Declining FY2013

Why does it matter? Child care licensing serves to provide some minimum health and safety protections for children in child care. States may require minimum training for providers and an emergency plan in the case of a fire or simple things like working smoke detectors and a fire extinguisher. In the past month in Virginia, 3 babies have died in unlicensed at home child care programs where providers had no training for emergencies, no fire extinguishers, and no working smoke detectors.  For Virginia, 46 infants have died over the last few years in unlicensed care. In Missouri, more than 67 babies have died in unlicensed care.  In Indiana, 18 babies have died in unlicensed care. Maybe some of these children were on a subsidy, but we don’t know because current law does not require reporting of this type of data.

The death of any child is a tragedy. It’s an even greater tragedy when the deaths can be prevented. Licensing  serves to protect the health and safety of children. One would think that when taxpayer dollars are used to pay for the care of low income children, that the settings paid for would be safe. But, with unlicensed care, we just don’t know. What we do know is that unlicensed care poses risks to children since there are no minimum health and safety protections.

This week, the Senate will consider legislation to reauthorize (renew) the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). The bill was approved by the House of Representatives on September 15.  If approved by the Senate this week, the measure will be forwarded to the President to be signed into law. The bill includes important new health and safety protections for children. It requires more accountability for state expenditure of federal funds.  But, most importantly, it will help strengthen the quality of child care in every state so that parents have more choices among quality settings.

Arkansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Wisconsin, choose not to use subsidy dollars to pay for unlicensed care.  For the rest of the states, the bill will require a review of the policies to protect children when the states allow funding for unlicensed settings.  The bill requires:

  • a comprehensive background check (a fingerprint check against state and federal records, a check of the state child abuse registry and a check of the state sex offender registry) for all licensed or regulated care and unlicensed nonrelative care where subsidies are used;
  • States that choose to use subsidies to pay for unlicensed care to publicly explain why such care does not endanger the health, safety, or development of children;
  • At least one annual inspection of all providers receiving a subsidy, including unlicensed non-relative care;
  • Minimum training on important health and safety topics like safe sleeping practices and training related to the social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development of children; and
  • States to report deaths in child care, differentiated by type of setting and whether the setting is licensed or unlicensed.  Requiring the collection of this data is not to be morbid, but to better inform states and HHS about any trends and training that might make a difference.

The bill does not require assistance to families to be used for licensed care. However, it does require states to ensure that if they choose to use taxpayer dollars in unlicensed care, that children are safe. Children should be safe in child care – whether that care is paid for by a subsidy or not.