Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

July 28, 2013

Creating a safer child care industry

State works to tighten security at facilities, help parents' search.

By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer

— When Jill Russell started caring for children in 1987, babies still slept on their bellies, and you gave them a blanket to cuddle with when they napped.

Times have changed, she said. People started realizing that wasn’t safe.

She changed the way she ran her day care to reflect that. But not every Indiana child care facility did, and the unlicensed ones weren’t required to.

Indiana legislators changed that this year. Legislation that went into effect this month requires all unlicensed child care providers who accept Child Care Development Fund vouchers to follow new health and safety standards — including participating in safe sleep training.

Those new standards were welcomed by many.

Unsafe sleep practices are the No. 1 cause of death in child care facilities in the United States, said Amy Healton, infant and toddler specialist for Bona Vista’s Child Care Solutions referral service.

Russell was once wary of government intervention, especially when regulations in the child care industry were few and far between. In the early 1990s, she was convinced the government was trying to control her and put home-based child care facilities like hers out of business.

“Everybody was afraid,” she said. “I realize now they’re just trying to help. There’s laws because there needs to be.”

House Enrolled Act 1494 took effect this month, too. It requires all providers, employees and volunteers to submit to a national criminal history check by sending their fingerprints to the FBI.

This ensures all providers meet the same standard. Families don’t need to guess if these have been done on their child’s caregiver. Criminal background records from all states will be checked now, too. And the state can guarantee the caregiver’s identity. There won’t be missed hits anymore because of aliases, nicknames or misspellings.

“It was very easy to game before,” said Melanie Brizzi of the Indiana Bureau of Child Care. “This is one of the most fundamental protections we can provide children — to ensure the adult caring for them is safe.”

Healton agreed. She said this is a huge step forward.

“We’re taking steps to make sure kids are really, really safe,” she said. “The bad guys aren’t going to get them.”

Perhaps the most meaningful industry advance for parents came five years ago, though.

The state launched its Paths to Quality rating system. The system identifies four levels of quality child care, each building on the previous level.

It’s a voluntary program for providers. Those who participate are evaluated during a facility visit.

Level-one programs are guaranteed to meet the health and safety needs of children. Level-two programs also promote learning environments. They show evidence of consistent daily schedules and planned activities for children.

Programs rated a level three follow a curriculum. They plan activities that lead to school readiness.

And the highest-rated programs follow all of those guidelines, and they are nationally accredited as well.

Purdue University researchers evaluated the rating system from 2008 to 2011, and published the findings in a study.

They visited 312 licensed child care center classrooms, registered child care ministry classrooms and licensed family child care homes. The Purdue team also interviewed more than 1,800 parents and 270 child care providers, and completed developmental assessments with more than 550 infants, toddlers and preschoolers in Paths to Quality centers and homes.

Research showed that child care providers enrolled in the program were providing higher quality services in certain instances.

The Purdue team noticed more staff cooperation and better teacher evaluations and supervision. There was better program structure and provisions for children with special needs. There were more books in the classroom, and children were communicating better. The Paths to Quality providers also got high marks for child supervision and discipline strategies.

But the providers struggled in other areas.

“Quality in some areas — adult-child interactions, learning activities, health practices, and space and furnishing — could be improved by strengthening Paths to Quality standards and assessments,” the report said.

Indiana was one of the first states in the nation to establish a child care rating system, Brizzi said.

In 2010 and 2011, very few parents were aware of the system, even though providers were enrolling.

According to the Purdue University study, 12 percent of the parents they randomly surveyed in 2010 were aware of Paths to Quality. That number rose to 14 percent in 2011.

But about two-thirds said they would make a child care decision based on a provider’s Paths to Quality level, and about half said they would consider paying more for care rated at a higher level.

Lindsey Davison, outreach specialist for Child Care Solutions, said area parents seemed oblivious to the rating system until about two years ago.

Now, they’re coming in and asking for child care at specific levels.

That’s put pressure on providers to enroll in the program and move up levels, she said.

In Howard County, there are 27 child care centers, homes and ministries enrolled in the program. Five providers are rated a level four. Another five are at a level three, and three are level two. The remaining 14 are a level one.

There are far fewer providers enrolled in surrounding counties.

In Miami County, there are six providers enrolled — half of the licensed and registered providers there.

One is level four. Two are level three, and two are level two. One is a level one.

The numbers in Tipton County are even smaller. There are only two licensed providers, and one of them is enrolled in the program.

It took the women at Child Care Solutions to convince Russell she should be in the program. Today, she credits them with helping her provide a higher quality of care.

She’s a level four licensed home. She’s added more art to her program and more hands-on activities that foster learning, she said.

When it’s nice outside, her kids might learn to fly a kite or play on the playground. When it’s rainy, they might bake cookies or finger paint with mud.

They regularly read books and dance and play music. She’s added pianos and ukuleles for her children to play.

And she’s gotten rid of all battery-operated toys at her home, she said. Kids at her day care don’t watch television or play with iPads or video games.

Russell said Paths to Quality is great for everyone involved.

“The state’s created an environment that makes it easier to locate and evaluate child care,” she said. “And it’s taught me how to adapt what I was already doing to be more enriching for the kids.”

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com.