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.

More Accountability Needed: Child Care Aid by Race

May marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that outlawed “separate but equal.”   In the decades since 1954, much as been done to integrate schools, boost performance rates among all children and close the achievement gap that is first noticed in kindergarten. As a nation, we’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.

The 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores of our nation’s 4th graders show that:

  • 21 percent of white 4th graders read below grade level;
  • 47 percent of Hispanic 4th graders read below grade level; and
  • 50 percent of African American 4th graders read below grade level.

Studies have well documented the school readiness gap when children enter kindergarten. African American and Hispanic children enter kindergarten below their white peers in reading and math related school readiness skills.

If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we need to look at where children are before they enter school and strengthen the quality of early childhood settings. Most states now operate Pre-K programs. As studies show, Pre-K can make a difference.  But, Pre-K is not a panacea. The reality is, that most children are in some form of child care every week.  Given the hours that children spend in child care, and the age at which they begin child care settings, it is time to strengthen the quality of child care (for children age 4 and younger) to ensure that children start school ready to succeed and to close the achievement gap.

The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) is the primary source of federal child care funding to states. More than 1.5 million children each year receive assistance through CCDBG. The split between white and African American children among CCDBG children assisted is about equal (43% of the children whose care is paid for with CCDBG dollars are white; 42% of the children are African American).

What we know from the most recent (FY2012) CCDBG data is: overall, about 256,241 children or 17 percent of the children whose care is paid for by CCDBG are in unlicensed care. While licensing requirements vary by state, little is known about the safety and quality of unlicensed settings – even if federal CCDBG subsidies are used to pay for it.  For example, there may be no training requirements for child care providers or only minimal training required – far below state licensing standards. There may be no health and safety requirements or only minimal requirements – far below state licensing standards. There may be no inspections or unlicensed settings may “self-certify” that they meet any state requirements (if they apply). Background checks for unlicensed child care providers receiving subsidies are mostly based on a name check, not a fingerprint check matched against state and federal records to prohibit those who might attempt to use an alias or circumvent a background screening system.

Unlicensed care does not mean illegal care. Some child care settings are license-exempt, which means that a state statute specifically exempts that category of care from licensing requirements. (For example, a state may specifically exempt “drop in” care, a child care setting in a mall designed to care for a child for a few hours on an irregular basis while a parent shops).  Some states do not license family child care homes until they reach a certain threshold of children. (For example, in 27 states, family child care homes are not required to have a license until they care for 4 or more unrelated children).

Why the attention to unlicensed care?   In 10 states, 30 percent or more of the children whose care is paid for with CCDBG funding are in unlicensed settings. (Alabama, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, and Oregon). For a table of CCDBG funded unlicensed care in all states, click here.  It may be that these settings are safe and offering quality care, but the reality is, we do not know.  What we do know is that minimum protections for children required by licensed care are not required.

In 18 states, 50 percent or more of the children whose care is paid for with CCDBG subsidies are African American.

Race Table Picture

The percentage of children under age 13 within each state in unlicensed care varies greatly. In Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin, either no CCDBG dollars are spent on unlicensed care or 1 percent or fewer of the children whose care is paid for by CCDBG are in unlicensed care. Among the remaining states, the percentage of children in unlicensed care paid for by CCDBG varies from 72 percent in Hawaii to 2 percent in Georgia.

African American Children Under Age 5 in Unlicensed Care Paid for by CCDBG: What we know from the data is that for children under age 5, African American children are twice as likely to be in unlicensed care than white children (21.4 percent vs 11.8 percent).

Children Under Age 5 by Race

We know that the 4th grade reading test scores show that African American children are more than twice as likely compared to white children to read below grade level. We know that the school readiness gap is first noticed in kindergarten but does not begin in kindergarten. It’s time to bring more accountability to CCDBG funding to ensure that all children are in settings to promote their safety and healthy development.

There is much attention today to expanding Pre-K programs for 4 year-old children. That’s a great goal. However, the fact remains that for many children, child care is their early learning program.  From the research, we know that low income children are more likely to start school behind their more economically well-off peers. From a policy perspective, we know we have an opportunity with CCDBG dollars to ensure that low income children are in higher quality settings than they otherwise would be able to access. However, from the data, we know that nearly one-fifth of those who receive assistance are in unlicensed settings – settings that we know little about except that they are not required to have minimum protections for children.  And, from that same data, we know that African American children under age 5 whose care is paid for with a subsidy are twice as likely as white children to be in unlicensed care.

Sixty years after Brown vs Board of Education, we still have a long way to go. As we seek to close the achievement gap for students in K-12 schools, it is time to review the settings children are in before they start school. Our first step ought to be to review the settings children are in that are funded by taxpayer dollars. Licensed or unlicensed, are federal CCDBG dollars spent in an accountable manner? Are children, whose care is paid for with taxpayer dollars, in settings that are safe and that promote their healthy development?

It is troubling that given the plethora of research that underscores the importance and impact of quality child care on the school readiness of children, and particularly those at risk,  that  African American children under age five are twice as likely as white children to be in unlicensed settings.  If we truly care about school readiness, we can and should create more accountability for how our federal dollars are spent — for all children.