Child-care providers seek new standards; Group says statewide

Child-care providers seek new standards; Group says statewide

Cynthia Taggart Staff writer

Stop signs don’t change shape or color from city to city, and neither do hunting and fishing laws in Idaho.

So Doug Fagerness wonders why child-care regulations vary according to each Idaho city’s whim.

“It makes no sense,” says Fagerness, the director of the North Idaho College Head Start program. “When a place has been operating awhile, people moving into that town assume it’s licensed, that the staff has been through background checks and is trained in health, fire and safety issues. That’s just not the case.”

That’s why Fagerness is encouraging everyone he knows to tell legislators how important the health and safety of Idaho’s children is to them. Fagerness is part of a group called the Child Care Summit, which is recommending Idaho tighten its child-care licensing laws for the first time in more than a dozen years.

State law requires centers that offer care to more than 12 children to have a license. To earn that license, centers undergo health and fire safety inspections and criminal background checks on all people older than 11 who have contact with children. Employees who work directly with children need four hours of training each year.

The summit wants the law changed to include all child-care operations, including those in homes that care for at least two children unrelated to the care providers.

“This is not a touchy-feely issue,” says Cathy Kowalski. She’s part of the summit and owns Loving Care Children’s Center in Coeur d’Alene. “There are hard economic issues tied to it. Our legislators need to know constituents feel strongly about it.”

Fagerness says data from various research groups shows that most Idaho parents work. When he subtracts the number of children in licensed child care centers from the estimated number of children who need care, Fagerness says he finds about 30,000 preschool-age children statewide who receive unregulated care. Families are not alone in their concern. Kowalski says tighter licensing laws would add credibility to her industry.

“Child care isn’t an industry that brings in large capital,” she says. “But it’s a large business group and an industry not to be ignored. Imagine what would happen if no child-care centers operated for one day in Coeur d’Alene. Child care is so crucial.”

Seven Idaho cities – Boise, Coeur d’Alene, Pocatello, Chubbuck, Moscow, Jerome and Lewiston – have their own child-care licensing laws that are stricter than the state law.

Coeur d’Alene’s law extends to operations with two children unrelated to each other or center owners. It requires references, confirmation from two sources of the moral character of owners, criminal history background checks and fingerprints of all employees, health and safety inspections, current first-aid and CPR cards, tuberculosis tests, a child-care course and eight hours of child development instruction per year.

“I just wish everyone would fingerprint,” says Kathy Lewis, the deputy city clerk for Coeur d’Alene in charge of child-care licensing. “People will sign anything saying there’s nothing criminal in their past, but fingerprinting has turned up all sorts of things for us.”

State law sets the minimum standard for child-care centers outside of the seven cities with their own laws, and it’s not enough, Fagerness and Kowalski say. Opposition so far to the summit’s proposed changes is mild, but it’s there. Some unlicensed providers worry about the costs for inspections and who will pay them.

Kowalski’s calculations tell her the seven health districts, which would conduct the inspections, each would need a half-time person for the additional work, which would cost between $200,000 and $300,000 a year, she says. Fagerness believes the state taxpayers should cover the cost in the “it takes a village to raise a child” philosophy.

In Coeur d’Alene, child-care operators pay $35 for a health inspection, $50 for a license that includes a fire inspection, $40 for fingerprinting of each employee and other costs that pertain only to Coeur d’Alene.

The summit hasn’t decided yet who should pay the licensing costs. And that’s a problem, at least for this legislative session, says Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene.

“I want to know if funding can be done by providers because there’s no money in the state budget for it,” Sayler says.

He’s hunting for sponsors, particularly in the Senate where he believes the proposal will have a better chance of success. But he doesn’t have much hope the licensing changes will find the support they need this year.

“I stressed to the group from Coeur d’Alene last year to work on a coalition around the state, get people to support it from elsewhere,” Sayler says. “If they’re just starting that, it’s a little late for this year.”

Fagerness and Kowalski don’t expect success this year, but that won’t stop them from encouraging people to contact their legislators in support of the child care licensing law changes.

“We want the idea at least raised,” Fagerness says. “Healthy safe children are our greatest asset.”

Cynthia Taggart can be reached at (208) 765-7128 or by e-mail at cynthiat@spokesman.com.

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